Was al-Libi Tortured So Bush Could Invade Iraq?
- Bob FertikWant to meet our members? Click 'Join' above!
Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the little-known man who died mysteriously in a Libyan prison, has a crucial place in world history. Without his tortured false confession - that Saddam Hussein had offered to train two al-Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons - the U.S. might never have invaded Iraq.
George Bush relied on his false confession for his crucial speech in Cincinnatti on October 7, 2002, just days before Congress voted on the Iraq War resolution. Bush declared, "We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases."
Colin Powell relied on it for his crucial speech to the U.N. on February 5, 2003. "I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these [chemical and biological] weapons to al-Qaeda. Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story."
His death leaves behind a question of historic proportions: was there a secret plan at the highest levels of the Bush Administration to extract his false confession in order to manufacture propaganda for a disastrous war? As Andy Worthington writes,
the failure of torture to produce genuine evidence — as opposed to intelligence that, though false, was at least “actionable” — was exactly what was required by those, like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, “Scooter” Libby and other Iraq obsessives, who wished to betray America doubly, firstly by endorsing the use of torture in defiance of almost universal disapproval from government agencies and military lawyers, and secondly by using it not to prevent terrorist attacks, but to justify an illegal war.
The answer to this question is obviously harder now that he's dead. But can we get anywhere close to an answer?
Thanks to Richard Clarke, we know Bush began pushing hard for links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda immediately after the 9/11 attack - even though Clarke insisted they were mortal enemies. (Al Qaeda wants a Muslim theocracy, while Saddam was a secular tyrant.)
al-Libi was the first senior jihadi - but not an al Qaeda member - captured after 9/11, so he was a "high-value" detainee, as Michael Isikoff described:
When al-Libi was first captured in January 2002, Pentagon officials described him as the "emir" of the notorious Khalden paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan; White House officials indicated at the time that al-Libi was on their list of "top 12" suspected Al Qaeda leaders targeted for apprehension.
His capture produced a battle between the FBI and the CIA. FBI agent Jack Cloonan wanted to collect evidence to convict Zacarias Moussaoui, the "20th hijacker," and Richard Reid, the British "Shoe Bomber." His agents in Afghanistan established "a good rapport," but "the CIA decided that tougher tactics were needed," and decided to send him to Egypt for torture. They didn't even wait for him to arrive to start their abuse:
According to an FBI officer who spoke to Newsweek in 2004, “At the airport the CIA case officer goes up to him and says, ‘You’re going to Cairo, you know. Before you get there I’m going to find your mother and I’m going to f*** her.’
Why did the CIA want to torture al-Libi? He was not likely to know anything about Iraq, as the FBI's Dan Coleman told Jane Mayer:
“It was ridiculous for interrogators to think Libi would have known anything about Iraq. I could have told them that. He ran a training camp. He wouldn’t have had anything to do with Iraq. Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links [between al Qaeda and Iraq], but there weren’t any. The reason they got bad information is that they beat it out of him. You never get good information from someone that way."
Whoever those "administration officials" were, they were also pushing the CIA to "come up with links." So questions about Saddam-Osama ties were central to his torture in Egypt:
he initially told his interrogators that he "knew nothing" about ties between Baghdad and Osama bin Laden and he "had difficulty even coming up with a story" about a relationship between the two.
Given his total ignorance, how did he end up telling a story that changed the world?
But his answers displeased his interrogators - who then apparently subjected him to the mock burial. As al-Libi recounted, he was stuffed into a box less than 20 inches high. When the box was opened 17 hours later, al-Libi said he was given one final opportunity to "tell the truth." He was knocked to the floor and "punched for 15 minutes." It was only then that, al-Libi said, he made up the story about Iraqi weapons training.
Was al-Libi's history-changing story something he "made up" on the spot out of whole cloth? Or was that idea put in his head in the course of his interrogation and torture?
At some level, it doesn't matter whether he "made up" the story himself or got the idea from his torturers. He knew his torturers wanted him to link Iraq and al Qaeda, and he was more than willing to say whatever they wanted to hear.
But it matters tremendously if someone in the Bush Administration - someone at the very top, in the middle, or at the very bottom - concocted this particular story and made sure it came out of al-Libi's mouth, knowing it could play a crucial role in starting a war.
Was there a master plan at the top to extract a false Osama-Saddam story? Or did someone in the middle concoct the story to please his boss? Or did someone at the bottom just get lucky?
David Corn teamed with Isikoff to write "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War." He pointed out the difficulties in proving my hypothesis in an email:
We spoke to FBI sources who told us how the CIA fought the FBI for custody of al-Libi and then shipped him off to Egypt. No evidence of any White House involvement or whether the CIA did so to cook up a reason for war.
Remember that at the time the White House and the CIA were not--institutionally-on the best of terms. And within the CIA, there were debates over some of the intelligence that would be used to justify the war, such as Curveball's reports.
My guess is that it would have been really tough for the White House to trust the CIA to do something of this sort. Cheney definitely would not have trusted the CIA NOT to spill the beans on the White House.
Could it be that the Egyptians knew what would please the Americans and encouraged al-Libi in this direction? Sure. Could they have done so at the encouragement of CIA people who told the Egyptians they were eager to find evidence of an al Qaeda-Saddam link? Sure, again.
That's all possible. There's just no evidence, as far as I know, to back up such speculation.
The evidence I have found so far is circumstantial.
- George Bush began pushing Richard Clarke to link Saddam and Osama on 9/11.
- In Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance gave the U.S. an Iraqi named Arkan al-Karim, whom they got from a Taliban prison. Before his release from Guantanamo, he told U.S. officials "They brought me from Taliban prison to get information from me about the Iraqi army before the United States went to Iraq."
- As noted above, the FBI's Dan Coleman, who lost al-Libi to the CIA, said "Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links."
- In August 2002, Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times until he invented a "ludicrous scenario in which Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq) were working with Saddam Hussein to destabilize the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq."
- Maj. Paul Burney, a psychiatrist sent to Guantanamo that summer, told the Senate "a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link … there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."
Is there direct evidence? Perhaps, because there have been several other books, articles, and interviews on the topic. Someone would have to mine them for evidence.
George Tenet wrote one such book. Remarkably, he still thinks al-Libi's tortured confession might be true, as Isikoff described:
Tenet in his book also sought to defend the CIA's use of the Iraq weapons claims made by al-Libi in the run-up to the Iraq war, suggesting that al-Libi's later recantation may not have been genuine. "He clearly lied," Tenet writes in his book. "We just don't know when. Did he lie when he first said that Al Qaeda members received training in Iraq or did he lie when he said they did not? In my mind, either case might still be true."
al-Libi's "confession" was discredited within weeks by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
As the [NY] Times described it, his claims “lacked specific details about the Iraqis involved, the illicit weapons used and the location where the training was to have taken place.” The report itself stated, “It is possible he does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers. Ibn al-Shaykh has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest.”
Tenet's stubborn faith in the CIA's "product" suggests he is not a disinterested observer. And if there was a CIA plan to extract a false confession, it's likely he was a key participant. After all, he devoted 2002-2003 to the mission of manufacturing a "slam-dunk" case for invading Iraq in order to please his boss. He had both the motive and the opportunity to commit this crime.