The Missing Terrorist

A group of House members is pressing the White House to provide answers for the first time to one of the biggest mysteries of the debate over pre-Iraq War intelligence: what really happened to captured terrorist leader Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi-once considered one of the U.S. military's most prized catches in the war on terror?

Al-Libi, who ran one of Al Qaeda's biggest training camps, was the principle source for former secretary of State Colin Powell's claim to the U.N. Security Council that Saddam Hussein's regime had helped train Al Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons. But as first reported by NEWSWEEK three years ago , al-Libi later recanted his story about Iraqi weapons training, forcing the CIA to withdraw all its reporting based on his assertions.

A newly updated edition of the book, " Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War "-co-written by the author of this article and David Corn and published this week in paperback-quotes from declassified CIA operational cables that suggest that al-Libi had been brutally tortured by the Egyptian intelligence service and coerced into making his claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction training for Al Qaeda.

The cables indicate that al-Libi told agency debriefers in February 2004 that he "fabricated" his story about the weapons training only after his Egyptian interrogators crammed him into a tiny box for 17 hours. His account appears to be the first public description of a controversial  "aggressive" interrogation technique called a "mock burial," in which interrogators make their subjects believe they are being buried alive in a bid to elicit information.

In a May 24 letter to President Bush, the House members pushed for answers. "We are deeply concerned that an important facet of your administration's case that Saddam posed an imminent threat to the United States, which has been demonstrated as false, rested upon information extracted through torture by a foreign intelligence service," wrote Democratic Reps. Ed Markey and William Delahunt of Massachusetts and Jerrold Nadler of New York. Markey is sponsor of a bill to halt the CIA's practice of "rendering" suspects to foreign countries for interrogation; Delahunt is chairman of a House Foreign Affairs Oversight subcommittee that is investigating the rendition issue.

Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said today that the White House had just received the letter and will review it. "Prewar intelligence has already been exhaustively reviewed by the Congress, as well as an independent commission, that led to a restructuring of the intelligence community," he added.

The three House members, noting that it is a violation of U.S. and international law to transfer anyone to a country where there are "substantial grounds" to believe the person might be tortured, asked Bush whether CIA personnel participated in the interrogation of al-Libi. They also asked whether the administration ever took any steps to determine if the torture allegations were in fact true. (While declining to discuss any specifics about al-Libi's case, a CIA spokesman said that as a general matter,"the CIA does not conduct or condone torture, and does not transport individuals to other countries for the purpose of torture."

The House members also want Bush to provide Congress with information about al-Libi's current whereabouts-a prime subject of interest to human-rights groups and others who suspect that the administration is concealing key information about him because of the potential political and legal ramifications.  "Where is al-Libi today?" the letter asks.

Other captured Al Qaeda operatives have claimed to be torture victims. But few accounts have been as detailed-and hold the potential for more embarrassment-than the one provided by al-Libi. When al-Libi was first captured in January 2002, Pentagon officials described him as the "emir" of the notorious Khalden paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan; White House officials indicated at the time that al-Libi was on their list of "top 12" suspected Al Qaeda leaders targeted for apprehension.

But administration references to al-Libi all but vanished after the NEWSWEEK disclosure in 2004 about his pivotal role in the shaping of intelligence on purported Iraq-Al Qaeda ties in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. As later findings by the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed, the account extracted from al-Libi was used by President Bush as the prime basis for a key assertion in his Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime. "We've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases," Bush said in the speech, just days before Congress voted on the White House-requested resolution authorizing the president to go to war against Iraq.

In his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council, Powell made the same claim, referring for the first time to the United States government's source for the assertion. "I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these [chemical and biological] weapons to Al Qaeda," Powell said.  "Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story." Although Powell never identified the operative by name, CIA officials-and a Senate Intelligence Committee report-have since confirmed it was al-Libi.

But the al-Libi story fell apart in February 2004, when, according to two CIA operational cables, al-Libi-who had been shipped by the CIA to Egypt for interrogation in 2002-was returned to the agency's custody. He told CIA debriefers that he had made up the whole story about Iraqi weapons training in order to mollify his Egyptian interrogators. (The portions of the cables that have been declassified black out the reference to Egypt.) As al-Libi told the debriefers, he initially told his interrogators that he "knew nothing" about ties between Baghdad and Osama bin Laden and he "had difficulty even coming up with a story" about a relationship between the two.

But his answers displeased his interrogators-who then apparently subjected him to the mock burial. As al-Libi recounted, he was stuffed into a box less than 20 inches high. When the box was opened 17 hours later, al-Libi said he was given one final opportunity to "tell the truth." He was knocked to the floor and "punched for 15 minutes." It was only then that, al-Libi said, he made up the story about Iraqi weapons training.

Portions of two CIA operational cables describing al-Libi's account, dated Feb. 5, 2004, and Feb. 19, 2004, were declassified last fall and were first cited in the footnotes of the Sept. 8, 2006, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report , Post War Findings about Iraq's WMD Programs. The content of the cables, which received virtually no media attention at the time, appear to corroborate a comment, published in Hubris, by former FBI counterterrorism supervisor Jack Cloonan-who had responsibility for al-Libi's case before the Al Qaeda operative was rendered by the CIA to Egypt. Cloonan is quoted in the book as saying he had been told by a U.S. military officer that al-Libi had been subjected to a mock burial. The use of mock burials as a U.S.-sanctioned interrogation technique provoked protests from some Bush administration officials and FBI agents who feared that it might violate a U.S. anti-torture law. It is not clear whether the CIA itself ever used such methods.

Al-Libi's claims about Iraq's weapons training were apparently not the only suspect confessions he made while being interrogated by the Egyptians. In his recent book, "At the Center of the Storm," former CIA director George Tenet disclosed that al-Libi also told the Egyptians that Al Qaeda had collaborated with Russian organized crime to import into New York "canisters containing nuclear material." (Tenet's statement in his book-which was cleared for publication by the CIA-that al-Libi "provided the Egyptians" with this information was also the first on-the-record confirmation that al-Libi had been rendered to Egypt.)  But according to Tenet, al-Libi later recanted those claims as well, and no further information to support that alarming story has ever surfaced.

Tenet in his book also sought to defend the CIA's use of the Iraq weapons claims made by al-Libi in the run-up to the Iraq war, suggesting that al-Libi's later recantation may not have been genuine. "He clearly lied," Tenet writes in his book. "We just don't know when.  Did he lie when he first said that Al Qaeda members received training in Iraq or did he lie when he said they did not? In my mind, either case might still be true."

The administration was conspiculously silent about al-Libi last fall, when President Bush announced that he was transferring high-value Al Qaeda detainees from CIA secret prisons so they could be put on trial by military commissions. Despite the fact he was once touted as a top White House target, al-Libi was not on the list-and no further allusion to him has been made by any administration official.

But Noman Benotman, a former Afgan jihad fighter who knew al-Libi and who is now a London-based Libyan political opposition leader, told NEWSWEEK that during a recent trip to Tripoli, he met with a senior Libyan government official who confirmed to him that al-Libi had been quietly returned to Libya and is now in prison there. Benotman said that he was told by the senior Libyan government official-whom he declined to publicly identify-that Al Libi is extremely ill, suffering from tuberculosis and diabetes. "He is there in jail and very sick," Benotman told NEWSWEEK. He also said that the senior official told him that the Libyan government has agreed not to publicly confirm anything about al-Libi-out of deference to the Bush administration. "If the Libyans will confirm it, it will embarrass the Americans because he is linked to the Iraq issue," Benotman said.