By Christopher Dickey
Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Editor
Special Guest Contributor to PoliceOne
The Black Sites:
Ways of Making Them Talk
There were so many blind spots, so many new threats, as if September 11 had opened a seismic fissure in some lunatic netherworld and pure evil poured out. Starting just a week after the attacks on New York and Washington, someone mailed envelopes laced with anthrax to journalists in New York City and Florida and then to senators in D.C. The bacterial spores infected twenty-two people; five of them died. All of the letters appear to have been sent from Princeton, New Jersey, and all concluded with the same message:
DEATH TO AMERICA.
DEATH TO ISRAEL.
ALLAH IS GREAT.
But the rest of the wording suggested someone trying to sound like a jihadist, not a genuine mujahid steeped in the pious rhetoric of radicalism -- perhaps someone trying to warn the United States of vast horrors to come by giving it a little taste of mass destruction: "09-11-01...THIS IS NEXT....TAKE PENACILIN NOW," read the first notes. "YOU CANNOT STOP US.... WE HAVE ANTHRAX.... YOU DIE NOW.... ARE YOU AFRAID?" read the second ones. Investigators traced the bacteria's DNA to a strain that originated at the U.S. Army's biological weapons research facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and an American scientist eventually was named as "a person of interest" to the investigation, but the case went cold.
Then in December 2001, just three days before Christmas, American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami made an emergency landing in Boston. Two female flight attendants had discovered a thoroughly unsavory-looking passenger holding one of his thick-soled trainers on his lap and trying to light a fuse attached to it. He was a big guy, more than six feet tall, but one of the women tried to grab the shoe away from him with all the ferocity of an insulted schoolmistress. He bit her thumb. She screamed for help. Finally other passengers subdued him, tied him up with seat-belt extensions, and tranquilized him with Valium from the first-aid kit.
The terrorist's goofy face and the general weirdness of the incident would give comedy writers something to joke about on late-night talk shows, but all one hundred and ninety-eight people on that Boeing 767 came very close to dying that day. "The Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid was a half-Jamaican, half-English convert to Islam who fancied himself a tough guy (as his pseudonym he used the name Van Damme, after the Belgian star of martial-arts B movies, Jean-Claude Van Damme). The sole of his shoe had been cobbled out of the plastic explosive component PETN, with a detonator made of that terrorist favorite, TATP. If Reid had had a cigarette lighter instead of crappy matches from a cheap hotel, he would have blown the plane apart high over the Atlantic, where traces of the bomb and the way it was smuggled aboard would have been all but impossible to find. We might still be trying to solve the mystery of what happened.
In the immediate, uncertain aftermath of those crimes, Ray Kelly's basic goal was to know everything about anything that could threaten New York City. Clearly the big danger remained Osama bin Laden and his fellow travelers on the jihadist trail. But the sixteen branches of the federal government's "intelligence community" -- the FBI, CIA, NSA, and others -- were jealous of one another and essentially contemptuous of local police, including the NYPD. It was a story as old as terrorism. And they had a lock on the surveillance and spying both at home and abroad to which Kelly's force needed instant access. No matter how much Kelly reorganized his shop, the three-letter guys weren't going to open up theirs unless he could crack the federal bureaucracy.
In the spring of 2002, as fears grew that Osama bin Laden was positioning his assets for a new strike at the United States, and very likely at New York City, there was no time to lose. "We brought on tough professionals," Kelly said proudly as he looked back on those early days. They were all experienced men, picked not least because they knew how to batter their way through the federal labyrinth. "We wanted information -- and we got it any way we could get it," Kelly told me. "We were grabbing it and pushing it and shoving it."
Kelly appointed as deputy commissioner for counterterrorism Frank Libutti, a retired lieutenant general from the Marine Corps who "had a lot of credibility, a lot of gravitas." As Kelly saw it, the situation inside the FBI-run Joint Terrorism Task Force was a "total catastrophe." So Libutti got the job of packing scores more NYPD detectives into the JTTF and bringing them under his direct supervision. "Just by sheer presence we were getting information," Kelly said. But the FBI was all about catching criminals after the fact, and that just wasn't going to be enough.
Terrorists had to be spotted and caught, or at least scared off, before they acted. Anticipation and prevention had to take precedence over arrest and conviction. And in Kelly's scheme of things, that's precisely where Cohen came in. Not only could he organize a police intelligence division with extraordinary capabilities of its own, he could tap into Langley directly. "Dave has, of course, great contacts with the CIA," Kelly told me. The FBI and the CIA were notoriously bad about communicating with each other, as The 9/11 Commission Report and subsequent investigations would document in excruciating detail. But the NYPD was out to get solid information from both. "In the early days, we've got it coming in from a lot of different sources. That's what we wanted," said Kelly. "So we're getting it through the JTTF, we're getting it through other federal sources. So, were we in the loop? Yes. And when we weren't in the loop we complained." He smiled. "And we had enough clout to stay in the loop."
"We knew everything," Cohen told me when I asked him about those early years. In fact, the NYPD had worked out a very special relationship with the CIA.
Cohen declined to go into details, perhaps because a key figure was another veteran from the Agency who managed to join the NYPD without actually leaving the CIA. Lawrence H. "Larry" Sanchez and Cohen had been acquainted through the years at Langley. They had not liked each other. Sanchez was one of the people from the Operations Directorate who thought Cohen's name was "Fucking." But they got to know each other better when Sanchez was the Agency's main man at the United Nations and Cohen was running the Agency's office in New York City.
Physically it would be hard to imagine two men more different in appearance and personal style. Where Cohen is quintessentially gray, fading into the background, Sanchez is square-built, thick-necked, and bullet-headed, with "powerlifting and boxing titles," according to one brief biography, and qualification as a master scuba diver. He's also an accomplished and extremely competitive skydiver whose body, as a result, is wired together in several places. Having joined the CIA as an intelligence officer in 1984, he served in Afghanistan and Egypt before returning to Langley to serve as assistant to Executive Director Nora Slatkin while Cohen was DDO. In 1998 Sanchez was seconded from CIA to the Department of Energy to head its Office of Intelligence. Sanchez was supposed to try to clean up the mess created by the hunt for a mole suspected of giving China critical atomic secrets.
The point man on that same investigation was an FBI agent described in one press report as "an espionage troubleshooter": Edward J. Curran -- the same FBI agent accused by veteran CIA operatives of laying to waste the clandestine services of the Agency after the Aldrich Ames case in the early 1990s. Detailed to DOE as head of counterintelligence, Curran had inherited a botched inquiry in which the main suspect, a Chinese-American scientist at Los Alamos named Wen Ho Lee, learned before he should have that he was under suspicion.
(In the end, Sanchez and Curran at DOE and several agents from the FBI never found enough evidence to mount a prosecution for espionage in a case that seemed of enormous importance to national security. Had the Chinese really gotten their hands on crucial details of nuclear weapon design? Wen Ho Lee took a plea-bargain deal for mishandling classified documents on his office computer. Was there someone else feeding the Chinese vital information about the W88 warhead? If such a person was found, he was neither named nor prosecuted.)
By the spring of 2002 it was time for Sanchez to wrap up at DOE, and his old friend Cohen went to see him. Cohen wanted him to join his shop at the NYPD in a very particular capacity. The deal struck with Langley would detail Sanchez to the NYPD to be "the CIA's guy in New York City on terrorism," as one of his colleagues put it. This would be in addition to anything the CIA was doing with the JTTF, where relationships were still "in the process of building, changing, evolving, whatever," according to the same cop. Sanchez's job was to provide the New York City Police with everything they needed to know to make their program effective, including "all the detainee debriefings." "Do you know what Larry means to me?" Cohen told one of his colleagues long afterward. "Without him in those days, I would have had nothing, nothing to show Kelly."
Through the Sanchez connection, as well as his own contacts and his own analysis, Cohen kept Kelly informed about the size, nature, evolution, and mutations of the Al Qaeda threat -- at least insofar as anyone could make them out. The ability of Bin Laden's followers to adapt and learn stunned the intelligence analysts, especially in the first two years after 9/11. "Their capacity to respond to situations was phenomenal," as one put it, and what were called "the detainee reports" seemed the only way to keep track of that evolution. "We were able to stay ahead of it in New York City," said the same analyst, "because we had access." But the information was often obscure and occasionally delphic. By way of example, Kelly recalled, "We had 'the bridge in the Godzilla movie.' "
The public probably never will see the suffering or hear the screams of Abu Zubaydah. The CIA destroyed the tapes. And maybe "scream" is not really the right word. What does a man sound like when cloth has been wrapped around his eyes and nose and mouth and he is strapped to a tabletop or to boards so that his feet are higher than his head, which is completely immobilized, and then...someone starts to pour water onto his bound face? He cannot see it coming and then, when it does, he feels like he is drowning, smothering, choking all at once. The technique used by the Americans was carefully -- one hesitates to say "scientifically" -- designed not to kill. By one account Saran Wrap or a similar plastic film was placed across the mouth so water wouldn't actually go into the lungs. But the air would be cut off, the gag reflex triggered, and panic would set in immediately. Before the technique could be administered (reportedly by CIA officers or contractors who had trained for several weeks in this and similar inquisitional arts), top officials at the Agency, including the deputy director for Operations, had to sign off on it. Whether or not it was legal, it was all extra legalistic.
The writings of the neoconservative brains behind the secret executive lawmaking of the Bush administration would make "waterboarding" seem a limited and almost innocuous measure, a mere simulation of drowning and, indeed, a paradigm for torture lite that would be called, in the jargon of the moment, an "enhanced interrogation technique." One infamous memorandum, written by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel after Abu Zubaydah's initial interrogations, pretended to justify any method that did not result in organ failure or death.
None of this torture was the responsibility of the NYPD. Far from it. Yet the intelligence product that came out of it was potentially vital to the puzzle the cops were trying to fit together. Abu Zubaydah was supposed to be a prize catch for the CIA, and waterboarding was supposed to have worked on him very effectively.
Reports that came out about Abu Zubaydah's interrogation clocked his time on the board at under a minute. One said that he lasted precisely thirty-one seconds. And then he talked and talked. "In the next day or so," as a CIA veteran who was on the case at the time claimed to ABC News, "he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate because his cooperation would make it easier on the other brothers who had been captured. And from that day on he answered every question just like I'm sitting here speaking to you."10 But even if that is the case, you have to wonder: Of the many things he said, how could you know which ones were true and which false? Certainly some of the things said about Abu Zubaydah just after his capture did not ring true at all.
Zayn Al Abidin Muhammad Husayn, for such was the birth name of Abu Zubaydah, was a man who clearly had connections. I'd been hearing about him for years. His nom de guerre had come up in the case of an Al Qaeda facilitator named Fateh Kamel, whose case I'd covered in Paris, one of so many money movers, people smugglers, forgers, and petty criminals across Europe who helped would-be fighters make their way to wherever the jihad seemed hottest, whether Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, or eventually Iraq. The name of Abu Zubaydah also loomed large in the testimony of Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian caught trying to smuggle explosives into the United States to blow up part of Los Angeles International Airport in 1999 on the eve of the millennium. In Jordan, the courts convicted Abu Zubaydah in absentia of plots to carry out terrorist attacks against tourist hotels. But court records and Arab intelligence agencies tell you only so much. A veteran of the Arab Afghan movement in the 1980s and early 1990s gave me a clearer idea of the man.
Abu Zubaydah had been another of those kids throwing rocks in the 1987 Intifadah against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. Then he joined the battle against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan just as it was drawing to a close in the late 1980s and new battles were beginning among the mujahideen themselves. My Arab muj acquaintance knew Abu Zubaydah well in those days. He didn't consider him a leader, but a recruiter and fund-raiser who sometimes traveled in the guise of a merchant selling Afghan honey. Abu Zubaydah's main function, in fact, was running guest houses in Pakistan for jihadists on their way to the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan. Was he "the number three in Al Qaeda," as the White House wanted to claim and man journalists repeated after his capture? Not by a long shot.
Then again, if you want to know about the people who pass through a hotel, you don't ask the owner, you ask the guy at the desk. In that sense, Abu Zubaydah knew a lot. The frustrating problem for interrogators was the way he talked -- even the way he thought. He liked to write poetry and he tried to look at the world as a poet would. He kept a diary in the voices of three different people that told the story of his quotidian travails with wannabe mujahideen. And then there were the physical problems. He still had shrapnel in his head from a war wound in the early 1990s that, he said, impaired his memory. And he almost died the night he got caught. Fleeing a Pakistani special operations team working with the CIA and the FBI in the city of Faisalabad, he jumped off the roof of the villa where he was staying and took three shots to his gut, his groin, and his leg.
Five years after Abu Zubaydah's capture, when he appeared before a military commission hearing "on board U.S. Naval Base Guantánamo Bay, Cuba" (the heavily censored transcript of which was the closest he'd come to making a public appearance), he did not plead for his life or his freedom, but for the return of the diary he had kept for half of his life: "When they take it, I feel they take my child." He also begged for socks, which apparently are forbidden to prisoners at Guantánamo. He told the commission he had lost one of his testicles and that his left thigh "is not complete." Abu Zubaydah said he often had chills and seizures and tried to keep his left foot warm by putting the skullcap he used for prayers inside his shoe. One of the Bush administration techniques for "enhanced" interrogation is to keep a suspect standing and sleepless for days at a time. In Abu Zubaydah's case, that would have been more excruciating than the waterboard.
The president of the Guantánamo commission, an air force colonel, asked Abu Zubaydah directly about the treatment he'd gotten before his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006. "In your statement, you mentioned months of torture," said the colonel. "Has anything that you provided us today regarding your written statements [been] related to those times that you have been tortured?"
"No," said Abu Zubaydah, but the rest of his reply about what had come before is suddenly much more rambling than other passages in the transcript. Given that it is delivered in halting English and censored in several places, it is hard to tell, reading it on the page, just how much of the incoherence comes from the way his body and soul react to the memory of trauma. But the essential point comes through clearly: Abu Zubaydah would have said anything to get his interrogators to stop the torture.
"I was not afraid to die, because I do believe I will be shahid [a martyr]," he said, but "as God make me as a human and I weak," he went on, he would do whatever his interrogators told him to do. They kept demanding more information. "I say, 'Yes, I was a partner of Bin Laden [REDACTED] and I am partner of Ressam.' I say, 'Okay, but leave me.' " The interrogators would write that down. "But they want what's after, more information about more operations, [but] I can't." According to Abu Zubaydah's testimony at Guantánamo, he and Bin Laden had fallen out to such an extent that Bin Laden closed down the Khalden camp in 2000. Bin Laden didn't approve training facilities that were not under his direct control, and Abu Zubaydah and the others who actually ran the camp would not subordinate themselves.
As years passed and other figures were captured, the U.S government stopped talking about Abu Zubaydah as if he were of vital importance to Al Qaeda. In 2006 the carefully hedged biography of High Value Detainee Abu Zubaydah prepared by the Director of National Intelligence called him merely "a leading extremist facilitator." It noted that when he was captured he was raising money for an attack on Israel that he was trying to coordinate with the Jordanian terrorist known as Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, who was soon to become infamous in Iraq and eventually died there. But in 2002 both of them were independent operators who had never pledged allegiance to Bin Laden. Yes, it was true that Ressam and three of the 9/11 hijackers had received training at one of the camps where Abu Zubaydah worked, but as he told the Guantánamo commission, the camps were like "supermarkets." People came and trained and took away from the experience what they wanted. According to the DNI biography, published almost five years after the event, and four years after his much-heralded capture, Abu Zubaydah was "not believed to be directly linked to the attacks on 11 September 2001."
So in those first days of captivity, what did Abu Zubaydah talk about? In the first hours, badly wounded, covered in blood, tied down with torn sheets on a bed in a Faisalabad hospital, he asked the CIA interrogator to smother him with a pillow. The interrogator declined, of course. The smothering would come later, on the waterboard. Before the torture began, Abu Zubaydah talked philosophy, poetry, and elementary metaphysics. "He was a very friendly guy," the interrogator John Kiriakou, said several years later, but "he was unwilling to give us any actionable intelligence." Then he was taken to one of the CIA's ultrasecret "black sites," which had been set up in Thailand, Poland, Jordan, and elsewhere specifically to keep prisoners beyond the reach of American law or mercy. Once he'd been tortured he seems to have started talking about anything he'd ever heard or imagined; he was talking too much, in fact. Dan Coleman, the FBI's lead authority on Bin Laden at the time, looked over Abu Zubaydah's diary and other papers and concluded, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality."
The headline in the New York Post on May 22, 2002, helped set a paranoid mood in the city as the Memorial Day weekend approached: "Lady Liberty in the Cross Hairs -- B'klyn Bridge Also a Target: Terror Stoolie." The public was only just beginning to get used to the way Kelly poured police through the streets in frequent shows of force. Cops suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Kelly stationed an Emergency Service Unit truck -- what other police forces would call a SWAT team -- on the bridge itself. Choppers fluttered overhead. Police boats patrolled conspicuously.
The information that two of New York's most famous landmarks might be targeted by a new Al Qaeda plot was first reported to have come from an unnamed detainee at Guantánamo, but then, quickly, it was attributed to Abu Zubaydah singing his poetic heart out at one of the CIA's secret facilities. Indeed, he seemed to have the American government dancing to his incoherent tune. For weeks, each vague warning of potential threats to oil refineries and nuclear power plants, each hint of plots to put poison gas in office building air ducts, shoot down U.S. airplanes with shoulder-mounted missiles, or to send suicide bombers into the midst of American crowds had spiked the adrenaline levels in Washington. Now Abu Zubaydah had spit out something about plans to attack "the statue in the water," which seemed fairly straightforward, and he talked about hitting "the bridge in the Godzilla movie."
That reference was to the 1998 Roland Emmerich remake of the campy Japanese imports of an earlier generation. When the film came out in the States it sank faster than a dead dinosaur in New York Harbor. But like some of Emmerich's other apocalyptic epics (notably Independence Day, in which the White House and other monuments are blasted by alien death rays), it was huge with Third World audiences. In Pakistan and Afghanistan people watched it on pirated videotapes. They loved the spectacles of destruction, and some of Al Qaeda's acolytes clearly found them inspirational. At the end of Godzilla, the enormous monster is lured onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where he is ensnared by the web of suspension cables, almost bringing down the entire structure before he is finally killed by jet fighters. Abu Zubaydah's interrogators, none of whom actually had seen that box-office bomb, reportedly had to rent a tape to figure this out.
As the Memorial Day weekend came and went without any terrorist attacks or any evidence of specific plots, doubts grew among the press and public about the seriousness of the threat. Under the glare of growing skepticism, the Bush administration and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg started sniping at each other. So did the FBI and the NYPD. It suited some in the federal government to make it seem as if the city authorities just couldn't be trusted with "unsubstantiated and uncorroborated information" that the FBI had shared with them "out of an abundance of caution." Newsweek, apparently drawing on FBI sources, reported, "The Feds, using arcane lingo, told the locals that they were going to put out a 'terror line' on the threat. If the warning was 'above' the line, it could be released to the public; anything 'below' the line had to be kept quiet. But the jargon confused the New York cops, who believed they'd been authorized to spread it around."
What Kelly believed, in fact, was that he couldn't take chances, so he drew a line in the asphalt instead of the shifting bureaucratic sand. He had his secret CIA channel taking shape to help him decide how serious the threat was, or was not, and he judged it was worth making a show of force, even if that made the public a little nervous. "There are notions, concepts, ideas out there that we have to be aware of," Kelly told the press. Al Qaeda's Afghan camps had trained people who were now in place in the United States and they might have operational instructions. "We think this detainee has some credibility," said the NYPD commissioner.
Kelly suggested the abundance of overstatement was in Washington. There, the drumbeat had been going on for weeks. In rapid succession one administration official after another had raised alarms. New attacks, said Vice President Dick Cheney, were "not a matter of if, but when." There were real fears, to be sure, heightened by a sample of anthrax found in an Al Qaeda house in Afghanistan and the dissemination of nuclear weapons technology by a network of scientists based in Pakistan and Europe. But Bush administration officials also were going out of their way -- way out of their way -- to push their theory that the greatest danger to the United States lay not with creative low-budget terrorists like the 9/11 hijackers, whose only weapons of mass destruction were box cutters, but with the Axis of Evil -- North Korea, Iran, and most especially Iraq -- denounced by President Bush in his State of the Union address a couple of months earlier. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it to the Senate on May 21, "We have to recognize that terrorist networks have relationships with terrorist states that have weapons of mass destruction, and that they inevitably are going to get their hands on them, and they would not hesitate one minute in using them."
"Inevitably" -- that was the key word.
Adding to the sense of confusion and fear was the frantic way the Feds tried to cover their asses. News had broken that FBI higher-ups, including the Osama bin Laden Unit and the Radical Fundamentalist Unit at FBI headquarters, had ignored a potentially vital memo from the Phoenix office that tried to raise an alarm about the "possibility of a coordinated effort by Osama bin Laden" to send students to flight schools in the United States, then use them to carry out terrorist attacks. The frighteningly prescient memo, sent in July 2001, wasn't even read at FBI headquarters until after September 11. It had also been sent to two agents on international terrorism squads in the FBI's New York Field Office that summer. What they did about it was exactly nothing.
So, when FBI Director Robert Mueller jumped on the paranoia bandwagon in May 2002 and told an audience in Virginia that new atrocities were "inevitable" -- that "there will be another terrorist attack, we will not be able to stop it" -- Ray Kelly found the remarks unhelpful. "I would not have used the word 'inevitable,' " Kelly told reporters in a public rebuke to Mueller. "Certainly, after 9/11, anything is possible. [But] I think we are doing the best that we reasonably can to prevent another incident and to respond if, God forbid, there is one."
In fact, a second wave of attacks on New York City and other American targets was being planned, and in many different forms. Even if Abu Zubaydah could only half guess what was going on based on endless bull sessions with mujahideen passing through his guest house, he was close to the truth. He also gave up the name of an American, a Brooklyn-born, Chicago-raised former gang member named José Padilla, who might or might not be involved with new attacks, including one using a radiological bomb. (The witless Padilla was tailed from Pakistan to Chicago's O'Hare Airport and nailed as he got off the plane). And, most importantly, Abu Zubaydah confirmed something that analysts already suspected: The Al Qaeda operative who was being talked about in jihadist communications as Mukhtar -- "the Brain" -- was indeed the man behind 9/11, and his real name, already well known in counterterror circles, was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Copyright 2009 by Christopher Dickey