CIA Domestic Information Ops: The False News About Abu Zubaydah

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In December of 2007, ABC News’ Brian Ross came out with big scoop: A “leader of the CIA team that captured the first major Al Qaeda figure, Abu Zubaydah,” appeared on camera to announce that the waterboarding of Zubaydah had worked. The story was quickly picked up by conservative pundits and other reporters, adding what seemed to be hard evidence to the argument that harsh interrogation works. The web version of the story read like this:

In the first public comment by any CIA officer involved in handling high-value al Qaeda targets, John Kiriakou, now retired, said the technique broke Zubaydah in less than 35 seconds. “The next day, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate,” said Kiriakou in an interview to be broadcast tonight on ABC News’ “World News With Charles Gibson” and “Nightline.”

Except, Kiriakou’s story wasn’t true, and as Foreign Policy reports, Kiriakou has now issued a mea culpa, saying he was mislead by the agency. “In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the fine arts of deception even among its own,” Kiriakou now writes.

Foreign Policy reports that Kiriakou offered the following explanation in his new memoir:

“What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts,” he writes. “I suggested that Abu Zubaydah had lasted only thirty or thirty-five seconds during his waterboarding before he begged his interrogators to stop; after that, I said he opened up and gave the agency actionable intelligence.”

But never mind, he says now.

“I wasn’t there when the interrogation took place; instead, I relied on what I’d heard and read inside the agency at the time.”

In a word, it was hearsay, water-cooler talk.

“Now we know,” Kiriakou goes on, “that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied.”

The original ABC News story, meanwhile–with the headline “Coming in From the Cold: CIA Spy Calls Waterboarding Necessary But Torture”–is still running on the ABC News website, effectively unaltered save a small note that says after the third paragraph, “This story has been updated. (see endnote),” with a link to another page, where Kiriakou admits that he was wrong.

As it stands more than two years later, the web story is an embarrassment for ABC News. If the esteemed news organization had reported on election night in 2008 that John McCain had won the presidency, my guess is ABC’s editors would feel obligated to issue a more prominent correction than a blind link to another web page hidden in the text of their original mistake.