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I'm Not Buying Zubaydah

28 April 2002

Of all the journalism jobs I'm glad I don't have, covering the "story" of captured al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah ranks high on the list.

Maybe I've seen too many episodes of "The Agency," CBS's hokey but fun series about the CIA. Maybe I'm bothered by that fishy smell coming from the still unsolved anthrax mystery.

Or maybe I'm just saturated with an accumulation of mendacity and doublespeak that the Bush folks began to seep during the hijacked presidential election in Florida and that they now spew daily from the White House.

All I know is, when anyone from the administration -- be it a rare on-the- record source or the ubiquitous "government official" -- speaks about Abu Zubaydah, I don't buy a single word.

OK, perhaps I buy that, around 4 a.m. on March 28, FBI/CIA-connected forces stormed a building in the eastern Pakistan city of Faisalabad, engaged in a shootout and captured a 30-ish man who turned out to be one of Osama bin Laden's meanest, deadliest lieutenants, Zubaydah. I do not buy this because unnamed "U.S. officials" said so to the Associated Press or Washington Post, but because Jason Burke, a reporter for the Observer in London, wrote a blow- by-blow account of the raid that he "pieced together" from dozens of interviews.

I find it likely that Zubaydah was shot during the action, treated for his wounds, then taken by U.S. agents to a secret location where he has been kept and probably interrogated ever since.

But what supposedly has emerged from those interrogations begs credulity.

Raised in a Palestinian refugee camp and placed in charge of al Qaeda's terrorist training program when he was just 25, Zubaydah is by all reports highly intelligent, disciplined, ruthless and loyal to bin Laden. Yet, according to a host of loquacious unnamed U.S. officials, he's blabbed like a magpie since his capture, sharing all sorts of al Qaeda plans for terrorist campaigns in the United States.

The first week it was banks and financial institutions in the East. While Tom Ridge did not change our color-coded Homeland Security warning level (it's still yellow), the FBI did issue an official alert based on the alleged Zubaydah revelation. The alert included the helpful advice to citizens to be on the lookout for suspicious persons while doing our banking.

Next, the unnamed government spokespeople chose to confide to the U.S. news media that Zubaydah had shared al Qaeda's plans for dirty bomb attacks. Then, late last week, word somehow leaked out from that secret interrogation spot that Zubaydah had added shopping centers (or possibly supermarkets) to his string of targets.

With each disclosure has come a flurry of unattributed quotes about the veracity and value of Abu Z's reported ramblings. Typical was this in Time from "one U.S. official familiar with Zubaydah's remarks":

"If he could screw with our heads he probably would."

Or, in the same story: "How do you know he's not just jerking us around? You can make a case either way."

Yet another "American official" mused to the New York Times: "Do we make this public when it's quite possible that he's lying through his teeth? This could all be mind games on his part."

Indeed it could. So why, given who Zubaydah is - al Qaeda's chief of operations and a sworn enemy of the United States - is the Bush administration so eager to leak his every utterance? And to the hated U.S. news media, no less?

It couldn't possibly be to stir up confusion and insecurity, could it? To keep much of America where it's been since the horrors of Sept. 11: scared and buying anything the White House sells?

Stephanie Salter
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle © 2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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