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Harkat informant called "insane"

Posted in the database on Friday, June 23rd, 2006 @ 12:13:19 MST (3247 views)
by Ian MacLeod    The Ottawa Citizen  

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Terrorism suspect freed on bail; expert attacks accuser's credibility

Suspected Ottawa terrorist Mohamed Harkat was freed on bail yesterday as evidence emerged that a former "high-ranking" al-Qaeda informant who triggered his arrest was, in fact, a relatively minor and "certifiably insane" operative.

What's more, Abu Zubaydah only revealed his information, including now questionable details about supposed al-Qaeda plots against the United States, while being tortured by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators.

The revelations by senior Federal Bureau of Investigation and CIA officials are contained in The One Percent Doctrine, a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. journalist and author Ron Suskind.

Though it does not mention Mr. Zubaydah's tip about Mr. Harkat, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has confirmed he identified Mr. Harkat as the former operator of a guest house in the Pakistani city of Peshawar for extremists travelling to Chechnya. Mr. Harkat has denied any connection to Mr. Zubaydah.

It is not known what other incriminating information Canadian authorities have against him.

Yet even before Mr. Harkat's December 2002 arrest and detention on a government-issued security certificate, there were serious doubts within the FBI and CIA about Mr. Zubaydah's credibility, according to the book.

Their apprehensions and that "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and leap, screaming, at every word he uttered," were ignored by senior White House officials who wanted to publicly trumpet Mr. Zubaydah's March 2002 capture in Pakistan as a major coup for the "war on terror," writes Mr. Suskind.

But Mr. Zubaydah was little more than a "travel agent" for al-Qaeda operatives moving around the globe and had no operational role, says the book.

Quoting an unnamed top CIA official, it describes a high-level meeting at CIA headquarters:

"Around the room, a lot of people just rolled eyes when we heard comments from the White House. I mean, (President George W.) Bush and (Vice-President Dick) Cheney knew what we knew about Zubaydah. The guy had psychological issues. He was in a way, expendable. It was like calling someone who runs a company's in-house travel department the COO (chief operating officer). The thinking was, why the hell did the president have to put us in this box?"

Mr. Harkat's lawyer, Matt Webber, yesterday said the book's assertions about Mr. Zubaydah credibility are "quite staggering.

"It goes to show just how unreliable some of the (intelligence) information is. How could this have ever been presented as a reliable source of information in light of this?"

In March 2002, nine months before Mr. Harkat's arrest, Mr. Zubaydah was captured by CIA, FBI and Pakistani intelligence officers at his home in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Authorities, writes Mr. Suskind, believed he was an important, but mysterious player in al-Qaeda.

Counter-terrorism intelligence over the previous two years had picked up numerous references to the 30-year-old Saudi-born Palestinian. "His name was intoned by operatives at all levels, by new recruits, by foot soldiers, and wannabes throughout South Asia and the Mideast. It wasn't always clear what Zubaydah was doing, or where he fit in the wider organization. Just that he seemed to connect people."

A few days after the capture, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described Mr. Zubaydah as a "key terrorist recruiter and operational planner and member of Osama Bin Laden's inner circle."

But when Dan Coleman, at the time a senior FBI al-Qaeda expert, and other al-Qaeda hunters at the CIA read Mr. Zubaydah's 10-year diary, retrieved with other documents during his capture, they were stunned. "In it, Zubaydah wrote of his exploits in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3. Hani 1 was a boy, really, 10 years younger than the youthful Zubaydah's real age. Hani 2 was the same age as Zubaydah; and Hani 3 was 10 years older," Mr. Coleman, now retired, recalled.

"Zubaydah wrote impressions of countless days, years all told, of meeting with potential recruits, and his reactions to events and news reports -- from all three perspectives. Each Hani had a distinctive voice and personality.

"What was being observed, by three pairs of eyes, meanwhile, was often less than compelling -- what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said ... in page after page after page.

"Zubaydah was a logistics man, a fixer, mostly for a niggly array of personal items, like the guy you call who handles the company health plan, or benefits, or the people in human resources. There was almost nothing 'operational' in his portfolio."

The CIA, writes Mr. Suskind, had long suspected that Mr. Zubaydah was involved in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. But under those dates in his diary "there was nothing," said Mr. Coleman, "nothing but nonsense.

"This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality," the book quotes Mr. Coleman as telling a top FBI officials a few days after reading the diary.

"That's why they let him fly all over the world doing meets and greets. That's why people used his name on all sorts of calls and e-mails. He was like a travel agent, the guy who booked your flights. You can see from what he writes how burdened he is with all these logistics -- getting families of operatives, wives and kids, in and out of countries. He knew very little about real operations, or strategy."

In a speech two weeks after the capture, U.S. President George W. Bush -- who, according to the book, had by then been briefed on Mr. Zubaydah's apparent mental instability and non-operational role in al-Qaeda -- revealed the arrest. "The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah," he told Republican Party contributors. "He's one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction to the United States. He's not plotting and planning anymore. He's where he belongs."

Senior FBI and CIA officials cringed, according to Mr. Suskind. Mr. Zubaydah, meanwhile, was increasingly referred to in news reports as "chief of operations" for al-Qaeda, "a top al-Qaeda lieutenant", "number three" to Osama bin Laden and even his potential heir.

Mr. Suskind alleges the Bush administration's demonization of Mr. Zubaydah was "misleading the public for no apparent reason except short-term political gain (that) seemed wilful and self-interested."

Yet his portrayal of Mr. Zubaydah is at odds with other characterizations and information about the man.

The 9/11 Commission that investigated the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the U.S., said Mr. Zubaydah was a "major figure" in the 1999 Millennium Plot. In that case, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian refugee claimant living in Montreal, took part in the foiled al-Qaeda plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport that December. He was convicted in the U.S. in April 2001. (The report notes that Mr. Zubaydah also asked Mr. Ressam to get genuine Canadian passports for other terrorists to use.)

A Jordanian court later sentenced Mr. Zubaydah to death in absentia for his role in a thwarted plot to bomb hotels there during millennium celebrations.

In May 2002, according to the book, Mr. Zubaydah became the first suspected terrorist to experience the U.S.'s new legal interpretation that the Geneva Convention's treatment of prisoners of war provisions does not apply to the U.S. in the treatment of suspected terrorists captured overseas. He is believed to be in custody at the U.S. terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"According to sources, (Mr. Zubaydah) was water-hooded, a technique in which a captive's face is covered with a towel as water is poured atop, creating the sensation of drowning," says the book. "He was beaten. He was repeatedly threatened, and made certain of his impending death. His medication was withheld. He was bombarded with deafening, continuing noise and harsh lights."

Under his duress, Mr. Suskind writes, Mr. Zubaydah told his captors that U.S. shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, public water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty were being targeted by al-Qaeda. He also revealed the name of Jose Padilla. Days later, Mr. Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in Chicago on suspicion he planned to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the U.S.

Mr. Padilla was then detained for three years without charges in military jails before being indicted in federal civilian court last November on charges of conspiring to murder, kidnap and maim Americans overseas and of providing material support to terrorists. He has never charged in connection with the alleged dirty-bomb plot.

Meanwhile, Mr. Harkat's lawyers have successfully argued in federal court that Mr. Zubaydah's allegations against their client should be deemed not credible because of mounting evidence that his information was obtained through torture.

Last year, in a decision upholding the security certificate against Mr. Harkat, Justice Eleanor Dawson concluded Mr. Harkat had associated with Mr. Zubaydah. But she based this on secret evidence -- disregarding the statements from Mr. Zubaydah himself -- because of doubts over how he "came to provide information about Mr. Harkat."

Mr. Harkat refused to be interviewed yesterday, but his wife, Sophie, relayed to him the details from the book.

"Mo's comment was that he doesn't know Abu Zubaydah," she said. "I've always believed that what Abu Zubaydah has said was untrue. It just proves that these allegations are ridiculous."

Senior writer Ian MacLeod is editor for national security and terrorism. imacleod@thecitizen.canwest.com


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