The recent ascension of Marc Thiessen to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post can be properly seen as another step in the process of providing a positive public relations boost to the torture regime of the Bush/Cheney administration. And so, you can look forward to the Post becoming more of a vehicle for that effort over the next few months, with their trademarked disregard for objective reality in full effect.
You can also expect to see Thiessen making more bizarre claims, such as his recent assertion that well-known GITMO detainee Abu Zubaydah thanked his captors for torturing him. I had the opportunity to speak about Thiessen's various claims with Brent Mickum, of Hollingsworth LLP, who is one of the attorneys serving in Abu Zubaydah's defense.
Mickum contends that everything you've likely learned about Abu Zubaydah in the press -- for example, that he was a high-ranking al Qaeda operative with extensive knowledge of terrorist activities -- is incorrect, and that the government, in their case against Zubaydah, no longer disputes this.
"Abu Zubaydah, categorically, was not affiliated with al Qaeda," Mickum said. "He was never a top leader of al Qaeda because he was never a member and he openly disagreed with the militaristic policies of al Qaeda. The camp he is alleged to have been involved with was closed in 2000 -- two years before his capture -- because the emir who oversaw it refused to allow it to fall under the control of al Qaeda. Thus, he is not, and never was, the man that the Bush administration made him out to be -- someone who orchestrated terrorist attacks."
Mickum went on: "And no one is disputing these facts anymore. So, my question to Mr. Thiessen is this: If Abu Zubaydah wasn't a member of al Qaeda, and not in the position to know about al Qaeda's operations, what does that say about the quality of the information obtained using these enhanced techniques -- or to use the precise term, torture? And what does that tell him about the intel that led to his capture in the first place?"
And based upon what Mickum knows -- and can divulge -- about the legal filings in the case, it would seem that the government is, indeed, not contesting the fact that Abu Zubaydah was not a member of al Qaeda.
"We received the government's brief, which included 2,500 pages of exhibits. As you might expect, we filed a massive discovery motion. The government responded with an equally mountainous motion opposing our discovery. These filings are classified, so I cannot tell you what is in it. But I can tell you what's not in the government's filings. And what's not in it are claims that Abu Zubaydah was a member of al Qaeda."
Indeed, the government has been quietly backtracking from that claim for some time.
In an article Mickum submitted to the Guardian -- which was reviewed and vetted by the CIA prior to publication -- Mickum made note of the fact that Abu Zubaydah's starring role in the cases of many other detainees was being left on the cutting room floor, and that cases built on the back of connections to Abu Zubaydah were being dropped:
More importantly, the government is conducting a surreptitious but systematic purging of any reference to my client from the charge sheets and factual returns of other prisoners whose cases were being prosecuted. Abu Zubaydah has been linked to nearly 50 prisoners and former prisoners through media accounts and official Guantanamo Bay documents. Of these, approximately two dozen have either had their charges dropped or have been released from custody, including British resident Binyam Mohamed, who was recently released to British authorities without any charges. Before charges were dropped against Binyam Mohamed, Sufyian Barhoumi, Ghassan al-Sharbi and Jabran Sard al-Qahtani, each had their charge sheets redrafted to remove every reference to Abu Zubaydah.
Internationally, several individuals alleged to have known Abu Zubaydah have had their charges dropped, been released, or received other relief from their handlers. Abousfian Abdelrazik was alleged by the State Department to be closely associated with Abu Zubaydah. In 2008, Canada asked the United Nations to remove Abousfian Abdelrazik from its terrorism watch-list. Another prisoner, Mohamed Harkat, was supposedly even more closely related to Abu Zubaydah. Mohamed Harkat's attorney sought access to Abu Zubaydah for testimony relating to Harkat's trial, but the US refused to respond to his requests. In Harkat's Canadian trial, after Michael Hayden admitted that Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded, Canadian officials deleted all references to Abu Zubaydah's alleged statements in its public dossier.
Mohamed Harkat was later released by Canadian authorities. These are a sampling of what I believe are many other cases in which the administration has airbrushed Abu Zubaydah out of history - because ultimately he could not have been privy to the information the government alleged he had provided.
"I am not saying that there are not extant claims in the government's case that require a defense," Mickum said. "But I can say with certainty that the central way that Abu Zubaydah has been described to the American people -- that he was a member of al Qaeda, that he was a high level al Qaeda operative, that he had charge of planning terrorist operations -- is untrue."
This is the picture of Abu Zubaydah that Marc Thiessen continues to foist upon his readers. I asked Mickum what he made of Thiessen's recent claim that he had thanked his torturers and credited them with lifting a "moral burden" from his conscience. "No. That's categorically untrue. Abu Zubaydah has never apologized to or thanked his interrogators. Quite the opposite, actually."
I went on to ask him about a claim Thiessen made in an April 21, 2009 op-ed in the Washington Post:
Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can -- and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.
"Right," Mickum said. "And the same guy was nevertheless believed to have written al Qaeda's manual on how to resist torture."
One of the nagging facts of Abu Zubaydah's case that undercuts the entire idea that he could have occupied such an important role in the al Qaeda terror network was the fact that he suffered brain damage as a result of injuries incurred fighting Communist insurgents in Afghanistan. Mickum offered some details: "He was badly incapacitated. He wasn't able to speak for an entire year. He's no longer able to use a rifle. He has terrible problems with memory to this day, he can't remember the names of his mother or father."
This is not exactly the sort of person you'd imagine would be entrusted with details of terrorist operations.
Captivity and torture exacerbated Abu Zubaydah's mental condition, Mickum said. "While he was imprisoned, he was routinely overdosed with Haldol. For approximately two months, our meetings with him were useless -- he was a drooling mess. He's had hundreds of seizures, and he continues to have them to this day."
I also asked Mickum about what is known to have taken place in interrogations, based upon the information that was provided to the 9/11 Commission. I shared with him the timeline that was established by Marcy Wheeler, after painstaking study of the commission's report. As you might expect, he did not dispute Wheeler's underlying premise -- that the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah did not yield valuable intelligence. However, he was adamant that the timeline was wrong, that Abu Zubaydah was being tortured well in advance of August 31, 2002 -- the date established in the 9/11 Report as when waterboarding began. Mickum contends that torture began much earlier.
HUFFINGTON POST: Let me get this straight. You are saying that between the date of Abu Zubaydah's capture, which was March 28, 2002, and July 24, 2002, the date on which the CIA was said to have first received oral guidance on enhanced interrogation techniques from Jay Bybee, Abu Zubaydah was subjected to torture?
MICKUM: That's correct.
In addition, Mickum praised the journalism of Ron Suskind, in particular the way he chronicled the Abu Zubaydah case in his book, The One Percent Doctrine. "He got it right, and he got it very quickly. It's extraordinary work."
Thiessen's work didn't elicit the same opinion: "I'd love to be able to fully tell the American people Abu Zubaydah's side of this story. But I'm hamstrung. The case is ongoing, and much of what I could say, I can't, because it has not been declassified. We rely on the press, all the same, to get what we can tell of these stories out there. And we know some of the stories now, like the story of Binyam Mohamed. Marc Thiessen isn't bound by the same constraints I am, and he's using the papers to spread falsehoods about my client. It puts me at a fundamental disadvantage. That the Washington Post has given him a pulpit to spread false statements about my client and other prisoners really angers me."
In addition to Abu Zubaydah, Mickum served as defense counsel for three other GITMO detainees. These include British citizen Martin Mubanga who was released without charge in early 2005. Mubanga has remarried and lives in London.
Mickum also represented Bisher al Rawi and Jamil el-Banna. Bisher, who had worked as an intermediary for MI5 in London, was released on non-humanitarian grounds (that is to say: he worked for MI5) in March 2007. Jamil was released in December 2007. Neither was charged with a crime. Both were immediately returned to their families.
Says Mickum, "No Guantanamo prisoner who has returned to the UK has created any problem whatsoever."