The “insignficant plot” doctrine

“Detainee’s Harsh Treatment Foiled No Plots.” That’s the front-page headline at the top of today’s Washington Post. But the article itself (by Peter Finn and Joby Warrick) suggests that the headline is false. For in the third paragraph we read that, as a result of the harsh interrogation of the one detainee in question (Abu Zubaida) “not a single significant plot was foiled.” (emphasis added)

It follows, I assume, that (according to the Post’s sources) at least one “insignificant plot” was stopped. And if that is true, then it follows that the interrogations techniques produced at least some reliable information about real plots.

The Post does not define “significant plot.” There is, to be sure, such a thing as an insignificant plot. For example, our own CIA is said to have plotted to cause Fidel Castro’s beard to fall out. Islamic jihadists, however, are more serious and more bloodthristy than that. Thus, it’s difficult to imagine them hatching a terrorist plot that did not involve, as its intended end product, some loss of innocent life.

Much of the Post’s article is dedicated to advancing the view that Abu Zubaida was not the important terrorist the U.S. initially thought he was. However, Finn and Warrick have trouble keeping their story straight. At one point, they tell us that Abu Zubaida was merely “a fixer” for “radical Muslim ideologues” (whatever that means) who “ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 — and that was because the U.S. stood ready to invade Afghanistan.” Later in the story, however, the authors state that “until the attacks on New York and Wahington, Abu Zubaida was a committed jihadist who regarded the United States as an enemy principally because of its support of Israel.” Indeed, he allegedly was linked to the “Millennium Bomber,” an al Qaeda member. And whether or not Abu Zubaida worked “directly” with al Qaeda, the Post concedes that he “helped move people in and out of military training camps in Afghanistan, including some men who were or became members of al Qaeda.”

If, prior to 9/11, Abu Zubaida was already a committed jihadist who regarded the U.S. as an enemy because it supported Isarel, then why does the Post attribute his decision to work directly with al Qaeda to the fact that the U.S. was about to invade Afghanistan? Isn’t it more plausible to assume that he cast his lot with al Qaeda after 9/11 precisely because that outfit had pulled off 9/11? And if Abu Zubaida was moving al Qaeda terrorists in and out of “military” camps, then wouldn’t he likely have valuable information about al Qaeda and its members?

The significance of these questions goes beyond the quality of the Post’s reporting. If Abu Zubaida’s exact status and motivation are still unclear, our government can hardly be faulted for not knowing when it captured him just how much he knew. But the government plainly was not wrong in believing that he possessed potentially valuable information. And it cannot be faulted for not knowing in advance whether obtaining that information would foil significant terrorist plots, “insignificant” terrorist plots, or no plots at all.

The next time we capture an Abu Zubaida (or for that matter a Khalid Sheikh Mohammad), it will be up to the Obama administration to decide, based quite possibly on imperfect information, whether the prisoner is “high value” and, if so, how aggressively to interrogate him. In doing making the call, Obama and his surrogates will not be able to rely on the “insignificant plot” doctrine, however appealing it may be to them as liberal lawyers. For like the Bush administration, they will have no way of making the required assessment in advance.

Instead, the Obama administration will have to decide purely and simply whether to err on the side of protecting the American people. I wish I had more confidence that it will do so.

JOHN adds: Marc Thiessen dissects the Post’s article further at the Corner.

PAUL adds: One of Thiessen’s main points is that Abu Zubaida provided information that led to the arrest of Jose Padilla. The Post acknowledges this, but argues that Padilla was never charged in connection with the “dirty bomb” plot which he was accused of heading. But Thiessen explains that Padilla had agreed to undertake a different, more realistic attack — a mission to blow up apartment buildings in the United States using natural gas. Is this the plot that the Washington Post dismisses as insignificant?

Thiessen reminds us that, when Padilla was apprehended at Chicago’s O’Hare airport — thanks to iinformation provided by Abu Zubaydah — he was carrying $10,000 given him by his al Qaeda handlers, along with the email address for Ammar al Baluchi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad’s right-hand man. According to former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, the night before his departure, Padilla had been feted at a dinner by KSM, al Baluchi, and 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al Shibh. Apparently, they did not consider Padilla’s mission insignificant.

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