WASHINGTON—Zain al Abidin Abu Zubaydah was a smuggler of dangerous goods, a Palestinian who'd grown up in Saudi Arabia and who'd earned the trust of Osama bin Laden in the 1990s by shepherding terrorist recruits and al-Qaida leaders into and out of their bases in Afghanistan.
He was also, according to President Bush and other U.S. officials, the first success of a secret CIA program whose use of harsh interrogation techniques and secret prisons became a focus of human rights complaints for nearly five years.
By the time he was arrested in March 2002, Abu Zubaydah had allegedly served as an al-Qaida document forger and director of a terrorist training camp. He was believed to be plotting attacks on Israel.
At first, Bush said, Abu Zubaydah resisted interrogation efforts. Then gradually he opened up. Abu Zubaydah said that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, born and raised in Kuwait, was the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
He provided physical descriptions of al-Qaida operatives who he said were planning another attack. One of them was detained en route to the United States.
Then he clammed up again.
That was when CIA interrogators resorted to what Bush called an "alternative set of procedures." The interrogators were carefully selected, and they received long hours of special training.
The "alternative" interrogation techniques, Bush said, "were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary."
Abu Zubaydah's information, along with a bribe to one al-Qaida operative and eavesdropping on cell phone calls, helped lead to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and to another alleged terrorist, Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni.
Once in custody, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—or "KSM," as intelligence officials call him—provided information that helped disrupt planning for another attack on the United States, Bush said.
Over the ensuing months, CIA interrogators and computer technicians learned more details of the terrorist network from KSM and from computers and discs that were found. They gleaned phone numbers and addresses. They learned about terrorists who'd been unknown to the U.S. intelligence community. They managed to stop some plots. They captured not only those believed to be the Sept. 11 masterminds, but also those who'd planned earlier attacks on the USS Cole in Yemen and on two U.S. embassies in Africa.
The details of the CIA program were made public in an extraordinary speech Wednesday by Bush, who told the tale to justify the CIA program, which is suspended until Congress takes action to clarify whether it's legal.
Bush's account also shined light on one of the most secretive chapters in U.S. efforts to roll up those responsible for Sept. 11 and prevent new attacks.
For the first time, Bush named names and eschewed generalities.
He described how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told CIA interrogators about another al-Qaida operative he knew was in U.S. custody, Majid Khan.
KSM said Khan had been told to deliver $50,000 to individuals working for a suspected terrorist leader named Hambali, the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaida's Southeast Asian affiliate, known as "J-I."
From there, the intelligence trail arced from Indonesia to Pakistan to Afghanistan and other points in the terrorist network.
In one of the most chilling moments, Bush said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed described the design of planned attacks on buildings in the United States.
Al-Qaida operatives, KSM said, had been instructed to ensure that the explosives went off at a point that was high enough to prevent the people trapped above from escaping out the windows.
Believing that U.S. intelligence agencies already had the information, KSM said a man named Yasid—who was already detained at another location—helped lead al Qaida's efforts to acquire biological weapons.
That tip led CIA interrogators to question Yasid, who in turn gave up two partners who were planning to acquire and deploy anthrax, a deadly biological agent.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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