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Anatomy of a Leak By: Thomas Joscelyn
Weekly Standard | Friday, December 02, 2005


In the CIA's continuing campaign against the Bush administration, the agency has found the leaking of classified information to be a potent weapon. This is especially true with regard to the spinning of intelligence connecting Saddam's Iraq and bin Laden's al Qaeda. Consider, for example, the case of Abu Zubaydah, a top al Qaeda operative captured in March 2002.

On June 9, 2003 the New York Times published a piece by James Risen ("Threats and Responses: C.I.A.; Captives Deny Qaeda Worked With Baghdad") that suggested that the Bush administration was being duplicitous in linking Iraq and al Qaeda. The Times relied on anonymous intelligence officials who explained that the two top al Qaeda operatives in custody (Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) told their CIA interrogators that the terrorist group had rejected the idea of working with Saddam. The Times account began,

Two of the highest-ranking leaders of Al Qaeda in American custody have told the C.I.A. in separate interrogations that the terrorist organization did not work jointly with the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, according to several intelligence officials.

According to the Times's sources, Abu Zubaydah discounted the possibility of a relationship:

Abu Zubaydah, a Qaeda planner and recruiter until his capture in March 2002, told his questioners last year that the idea of working with Mr. Hussein's government had been discussed among Qaeda leaders, but that Osama bin Laden had rejected such proposals, according to an official who has read the Central Intelligence Agency's classified report on the interrogation.

In his debriefing, Mr. Zubaydah said Mr. bin Laden had vetoed the idea because he did not want to be beholden to Mr. Hussein, the official said.

The Times briefly (and correctly) noted that all debriefings should be taken with a grain of salt and also mentioned that "other intelligence and military officials" told the paper that "evidence of possible links between Mr. Hussein's government and Al Qaeda had been discovered--both before the war and since--and that American forces were searching Iraq for more in Iraq."

But, after momentarily mentioning these caveats, the Times got to the heart of its story. "Several [anonymous] officials" pointed out that despite the fact that the CIA had circulated the debriefing of Zubaydah "within the American intelligence community last year . . . his statements were not included in public discussions by administration officials about the evidence concerning Iraq-Qaeda ties."

One official told the Times, "I remember reading the Abu Zubaydah debriefing last year, while the administration was talking about all of these other reports, and thinking that they were only putting out what they wanted." The Times then quoted an anonymous intelligence official who warned, "This gets to the serious question of to what extent did they try to align the facts with the conclusions that they wanted . . . things pointing in one direction were given a lot of weight, and other things were discounted."

With the assistance of anonymous intelligence sources, the Times had, therefore, formulated a simple storyline: The Bush administration has cherry-picked intelligence by not mentioning Zubaydah's testimony. But, was Zubaydah's damning testimony inexcusably ignored by the Bush administration? Or, did the Times's anonymous sources misrepresent the CIA's debriefing of Zubaydah?

It took more than a year to learn the answer. On July 7, 2004 the Senate Intelligence Committee published its "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq." Many of the report's passages, including those related to Abu Zubaydah's debriefings, were ignored. Here is the complete passage regarding Zubaydah's testimony:

The CIA provided four reports detailing the debriefings of Abu Zubaydah, a captured senior coordinator for al-Qaida responsible for training and recruiting. Abu Zubaydah said that he was not aware of a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida. He also said, however, that any relationship would be highly compartmented and went on to name al-Qaida members who he thought had good contacts with the Iraqis. For instance, Abu Zubaydah indicated that he had heard that an important al-Qaida associate, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, and others had good relationships with Iraqi intelligence. [Redacted sentence(s)] During the debriefings, Abu Zubaydah offered his opinion that it would be extremely unlikely for bin Ladin to have agreed to ally with Iraq, due to his desire to keep the organization on track with its mission and maintain its operational independence. In Iraqi Support for Terrorism, Abu Zubaydah's information is reflected as:

[Redacted] Abu Zubaydah opined that it would have been "extremely unlikely" for bin Laden to have agreed to "ally" with Iraq, but he acknowledged it was possible there were al-Qaida-Iraq communications or emissaries to which he was not privy. [emphasis added]

Abu Zubaydah's denial was, therefore, not nearly as clear cut as the Times's anonymous sources would have had us believe. The CIA did report that Zubaydah "opined" that it would have been "extremely unlikely" for bin Laden to "ally" with Iraq. (Although it is not clear if the words placed in quotation marks were taken from the CIA's characterization of Zubaydah's testimony or Zubaydah's own words.) But, Zubaydah also told his interlocutors that such a relationship would have been "highly compartmented."

The summary of Zubaydah's testimony then includes evidence that actually points to a relationship. The bolded portion of the passage above demonstrates that Zubaydah told his CIA debriefers that there were "al-Qaida members who he thought had good contacts with the Iraqis." Zubaydah also told his debriefers that "an important al-Qaida associate, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, and others had good relationships with Iraqi intelligence." Zarqawi would, of course, go on to become the face of al Qaeda in Iraq and Zubaydah was in a position to know him well. Just a few years prior to his capture, at the turn of the new millennium, Zubaydah planned attacks with Zarqawi against targets in Jordan.

But, the Times's initial account of Zubaydah's testimony in June 2003, as well as numerous media reports that followed over the course of the next year, never mentioned the rest of Zubaydah's testimony. There was no mention of the fact that Zarqawi and others "had good relationships with Iraqi intelligence." Why? Because that portion of Zubaydah's testimony was not leaked to the Times. The Times's sources wanted to paint the Bush administration as duplicitous in its comments regarding Iraq and al Qaeda and the rest of Zubaydah's debriefings cut against that storyline.

Read the passage from the Senate Intelligence Report again and you will notice that the CIA also left the part about Zarqawi out of its report to the president. Iraqi Support for Terrorism was an analytical summary of the evidence of Saddam's support for various terrorist groups. That report was published in several iterations leading up to the war. The Senate Intelligence Committee quoted a passage from this report that reflected "Abu Zubaydah's information." If this passage is the entire summary of Zubaydah's testimony provided by the CIA in Iraqi Support for Terrorism, then this means that Langley did not bother to give the full details of Zubaydah's supposed denial even in its analytical summaries.

The story of the CIA's debriefings and the spinning of Zubaydah's testimony does not end there. Within weeks of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report, the 9/11 Commission issued its own report, which purported to debunk any notion of a relationship between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission's report included the following characterization of Zubaydah's debriefing (as well as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's debriefing): "Two senior Bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq."

As shown above, Zubaydah's testimony was anything but an "adamant" denial. If the 9/11 Commission was aware of the full scope of Zubaydah's testimony, then why didn't they report it? If the 9/11 Commission was not aware of the rest of Zubaydah's testimony, then why didn't the CIA's liaisons make the Commission's staffers aware of it?

The only way to begin to rectify this situation is to declassify all of the relevant portions of the transcripts of Zubaydah's debriefings.

But, beyond the debate over Saddam's ties to al Qaeda there is an equally important lesson to be learned from the distorted leak of Abu Zubaydah's debriefings. Intelligence operatives are skilled at spinning news coverage. And without a special prosecutor to investigate every leak, anonymity often allows them to get away with it.

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Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer, and economist living in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Iran's Proxy War Against America (Claremont Institute).


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