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Anatomy of a Leak

How anonymous CIA sources spun the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah.

7:00 AM, Dec 1, 2005 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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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: