Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that five leading Guantánamo Bay detainees will be sent to New York to face trial in a civilian federal courtroom. Included in the group are the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four others who helped orchestrate the attacks.
Conspicuously missing from the group of high-value terror suspects is Abu Zubaydah. For those who have been following Zubaydah’s case, his exclusion isn’t surprising. A senior intelligence analyst who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity said that Zubaydah was omitted from the group to be tried in New York because the Obama administration wanted to prosecute in civilian court only those terrorists with direct ties to the 9/11 operation. Zubaydah did not have operational ties to 9/11, the analyst told me. But in 2003, that same analyst told me that Zubaydah, during the course of his interrogation, had provided the “Rosetta Stone” of what really happened in the run-up to the 9/11 terror attacks. The backpedaling he’s doing now is part of a campaign of leaks from the U.S. intelligence community in an effort to downplay Zubayday’s significance.
With the announcement this morning that Zubaydah will be left off Holder’s list, the Obama administration follows in the footsteps of its predecessor in burying the Zubaydah leads.
There may be another reason why Zubaydah will not be part of Holder’s press conference. Owing to his treatment following his March 2002 capture by Pakistani and U.S. special forces and intelligence operatives, he is considered a key test case of “enhanced interrogation” techniques that neither the Bush nor Obama administration want to disclose. Zubaydah’s revelations about another American ally, Saudi Arabia—and that country’s insistence that Zubaydah’s allegations not get a public hearing—might also have influenced today’s decision not to bring him to New York. (U.S. authorities have not yet indicated what legal fate Zubaydah might face).
This past March, the Obama administration announced that the CIA had destroyed 92 videotapes of the agency’s interrogation sessions with high-ranking captured al Qaeda suspects. Most were of Zubaydah’s early sessions. In my 2003 book, Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11, I disclosed how Zubaydah initially refused to help his American captors. Summing up my findings in The Huffington Post in 2007, I wrote: "I also set forth how U.S. intelligence established a 'fake flag' operation, in which the wounded Zubaydah was transferred to Afghanistan under the ruse that he had actually been turned over to the Saudis. The Saudis had him on a wanted list, and the Americans believed that Zubaydah, fearful of torture and death at the hands of the Saudis, would start talking when confronted by U.S. agents playing the role of Saudi intelligence officers.
"But Zubaydah showed no fear when confronted by his 'Saudi' interrogators. Instead, according to the two U.S. intelligence sources who separately gave me the detailed account, he seemed relieved. The man who had refused even to confirm his identity to his U.S. captors began talking animatedly to his 'Saudi' captors. He was happy to see them, he said, because he feared the Americans would kill him. He then asked them to call a senior member of the Saudi royal family and from memory he gave them a private home number and a cell phone number. 'He will tell you what to do,' Zubaydah assured them.
"Those numbers belonged to Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, one of King Fahd's nephews, and the chairman of the largest Saudi publishing empire. Later, American investigators would determine that Prince Ahmed had been in the U.S. on 9/11 and his chartered jet was the first to leave the country only five days after the attack on America.
"In the days after his capture, wounded and still in great pain, Zubaydah would be subjected by his American interrogators to techniques used with no other detainee. They used painkillers to induce Zubaydah to talk—they gave him the meds when he cooperated, and withdrew them when he was quiet. They also utilized a thiopental sodium drip (a so-called truth serum). Several hours after he first fingered Prince Ahmed, his 'Saudi' captors challenged him, saying he had disparaged the royal family and he would be executed. It was then that some of the secrets of 9/11 came pouring out. Zubaydah laid out details of how he and the al Qaeda hierarchy had been supported at high levels inside the Saudi and Pakistan governments."
He named two other Saudi princes, and also the chief of Pakistan's air force, as his key contacts. Moreover, he stunned his interrogators by charging that two of the men, the king's nephew and the Pakistani air-force chief, had advance knowledge that a major terror operation was planned for America on 9/11. (Zubaydah would also be waterboarded 83 times).
Unfortunately, the four men identified by Zubaydah cannot be investigated because they are now dead. As for the three Saudi princes, the king's 43-year-old nephew, Prince Ahmed, died of either a heart attack or blood clot, depending on which report you believe, after having liposuction in a top Riyadh hospital. The second, 41-year-old Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, died the following day in a one-car accident, on his way to the funeral of Prince Ahmed. And a week later, the third Saudi prince named by Zubaydah, 25-year-old Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, died, according to the Saudi Royal Court, "of thirst." He passed away outside the Saudi capital, in his Rolls Royce, of dehydration. "The head of Pakistan's air force, Mushaf Ali Mir, was the last to go," I wrote in my 2007 Huffington Post story. "He died, together with his wife and 15 of his top aides, when his plane blew up—in a suspected act of sabotage—in February 2003. Pakistan's investigation of the explosion—if one was even done—has never been made public." I have made more than a dozen requests to the Pakistani government for additional information; they have all been ignored.
Zubaydah is the only top al Qaeda operative who has linked two of America's closest allies in the war on terror—Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—to the 9/11 attacks. George W. Bush protected the Saudi royal family and the Pakistani military from the implications of Zubaydah's confessions. With the announcement this morning that Zubaydah will be left off Holder's list—the only leading al Qaeda detainee absent from the tally of those to be tried in a federal courtroom—the Obama administration follows in the footsteps of its predecessor in burying the Zubaydah leads and ensuring they do not have a public hearing.
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's Chief Investigative Reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.