I Could Have Stopped Waterboarding Before It Happened

In the weeks after 9/11, the name Abu Zubaydah seemed to pop up daily at the five o’clock meeting that CIA Director George Tenet convened each night with the Agency’s counterterrorism brain trust. Shards of information about him were turning up in all sorts of independent, separate source reports. It was becoming apparent that Zubaydah was an essential al Qaeda player—especially when it came to organizing attacks, smuggling operatives across borders, procuring forged documents and arranging safe haven for terrorist fugitives and trainees. Apart from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, he was considered the biggest, and most elusive, al Qaeda fish out there. The talk at the CIA reminded me of Where’s Waldo?—he seemed to be everywhere, and nowhere.

Then, in February of 2002, a new, promising lead about Zubaydah’s possible location in Pakistan appeared on the screen. Weeks earlier, the CIA’s equivalent of an APB was sent to stations around the world. The order was to take Zubaydah alive if at all possible. Now the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) sprang into action, with Tenet cracking the whip—pressing for more information—every night. In the wee hours of March 28, 2002, the Agency hit the jackpot. A team of Pakistani commandos stormed into a house in Faisalabad, where they encountered both Zubaydah and a furious gunfight. In the process, Zubaydah was shot up badly, but taken into custody alive.

So now we had him. It was the best—actually the first—piece of good news for the Agency since 9/11. And as acting general counsel of the CIA, it was a development that would come to shape the next few years of my life—as well as America’s burgeoning “war on terror.” I didn’t know it then, but Zubaydah’s capture would set the stage for some of the most consequential, and controversial, legal choices the Bush administration would confront.


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