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Cheney’s Folly: How Torture Cost Us 7 Years in the Hunt for UBL

dick cheney

Vice President Dick Cheney

In Zero-Dark-Thirty, as in real life, the torture-hounds at CIA never come to their senses. The Vice President, Dick Cheney, had come out to CIA headquarters repeatedly to make sure that his suggestions were carried out. And so it happened.

It is only in 2010, after President Obama has shut down the torture system, that the Hunt For bin Laden project got fresh members and finally made substantial progress at tracking down the principal courier known as “Abu Ahmed” and then Usama bin Laden.

The hunt for UBL had been crippled by Vice President Richard Cheney’s interference from the start. Zero-Dark-Thirty does not depict Cheney’s actions. Still, we know that he made certain that the team focused to using torture to pry operational intel out of captured Al Qaeda jihadists. With ZDT carrying official sanction from CIA top management there can be no doubt that the team had made little progress and then ran into a brick wall at the end of 2009.

— Al Qaeda communicated using aliases, not family names. These aliases prevented direct identifications. The team failed at finding “the Disappeared.”

Same time, they were targeted personally for counterattacks from Al Qaeda. Seven were killed by a suicide-bomber at Camp Chapman on December 30th, 2009.

Without ZDT we would face substantial barriers to understand what happened:

— How would we get a CIA-approved/vetted/cross-checked history that depicts the CIA torture ?
— What were the impacts of torture on the other components of the hunt for UBL ??? Why would CIA document any part of it?

The both of these questions are solved in spades by Zero-Dark-Thirty.

Let us be clear: the acting in ZDT conveys the full extent to which the Hunt For UBL crew believed in torture.

Despite their attitudes, facts are stubborn things.

Katherine Bigelow’s direction and, particularly, Mark Boal’s screenplay depict how getting the team away from torture in 2009 led directly to recovering the identity of UBL’s prime courier in 2010.

I say “recover,” not “discover.”

Moroccan anti-terrorism papers with the family identity of UBL’s courier “Abu Ahmed” had been left in a banker’s box unread since 2002/2003.

Consider this off-camera to ZDT (like Cheney): CIA’s torture-hounds got so lost with their sadistic duties that no one carried out Standard Procedures for data entry and computer support. They never asked for help. Nothing was put on computer.

Can’t ask for much when you’ve got blood stains on your apron.

If Obama hadn’t shut down torture in 2009, CIA might never have reopened that Moroccan gold mine. Odds on, UBL would still be directing Al Qaeda to attack American targets. Seal Team 6 would not have returned on May 2, 2011, with a ton of hard drives, papers, notes, and rolodex from UBL’s office.

ZDT not only depicts history. ZDT is history.

Dick Cheney’s principal advisers were the other members of the NeoCon group recruited by Condi Rice, called “The Vulcans” after an iron statue in her home town Birmingham, Alabama. We call them NeoCons. They insisted on following procedures developed in the IP conflict on the I side.

Torture became the focus of the CIA’s Al Qaeda and Hunt For UBL program. People were recruited and assigned the top jobs based on their usefulness for extracting and applying information from torture.

The team was selected with a binary filter: support torture and you’re in; refuse to accept it with enthusiasm and you’re out.

The script from ZDT gives us a clear look at CIA’s torture-boys. ZDT shows each nugget of information that they extracted. They go years doing this and they get nowhere. Really nowhere either for getting UBL or for knocking out Al Qaeda. Killing an Al Qaeda “# 3” is useless where CIA’s torture antics recruit another 10,000 kids for them.

They tear flesh from bone from 2002 right through 2009. They repeat their methods, push their obsession with torture, adopt stubbornness. Also, based on ZDT as the CIA retelling of events, they maintain a flat/unwilling ignorance of modern spy tools.

They obstruct by inflicting their own project boundaries on the CIA system — necessitated by torture. They hide away critical information resources. They make it all but impossible to apply research tools. This is the legacy of torture:


1. 9/11 happens and foreign intel services make excellent copies of their paper files on Al Qaeda. They dump these many banker’s boxes of paper on CIA.

2. Apparently, from other sources, during 2002, there was a read-through of this material. The read-through looked for ties to the 19 suicide hijackers, to bin Laden, and to the same-pattern Air France 8969 attempt at suicide-hijacking in 1994. The hunt for bin Laden was not yet a separate agency project with assigned personnel.

3. We know from other sources including his own statements that Vice President Richard Cheney took an active interest in seeing that prisoners were tortured to extract information. He liked waterboarding. He demanded details to assure that recommendations he had forwarded were being followed. By 2003, the main Hunt For UBL team is assembled and up-and-operating in Pakistan with full control of project resources. The team might as well have been hand-picked by Dick Cheney.

4. ZDT kicks off in its first frames showing a typical CIA torture session. Between using sleep deprivation and beating the crap out of people, names were extracted. Those names were nom de guerre Al Qaeda nicknames and aliases. Only rarely did they get the actual family names as you would see on a birth certificate. The family birth names were not used inside Al Qaeda. Where the CIA’s UBL project had photographs of the target individuals, they were able to piece things together from these torture-forced crumbs.

5. Same time, in 2003, the team took custody of the vast resource of anti-terrorism material that was sitting in those hundreds of banker’s boxes.

6. For 7 years they sit on it. Intel 101, routine, dog work… is not done.

— No work is done to flesh out or to correct the material where the inevitable conflicts are found.
— No work is done to correlate information on known terrorist identities as the info is developed from the dozens of foreign sources.
— Not one index is built.
— No transcription is performed.
— No translation is done. No summaries.
— No data entry to the computer database system at Langley is done. This omission proves critical.
— No work is done to build an appropriate document tracking structure or to implement linguistic drivers in useful dialects to enable “live” search-team support with linguistic-search-engine-tools.
— No request for technical assistance is entered to facilitate getting computer support for the project.
— For no reason that makes sense to me, the banker’s boxes are moved to Pakistan. This is about as far as you can get from support services.
— They never, ever do data entry. The banker’s box documents never get as far as a local system running MS Access.

7. Torture produces minimal information. The name “Abu Ahmed” — a nom de guerre — comes up repeatedly. Everyone who dealt with UBL met him at one time or another. This man, “Abu Ahmed,” is the prime courier to UBL and tracking him down is the route that leads to UBL’s fortress-house in Abottabad, Pakistan.

No stretch: we can assume that a very commonly known name would have surfaced with traditional interrogation techniques. Simple bribery and special favors for the subject’s families tend to work. FBI SA’s familiar with the early stages of interrogation — before Cheney’s Folly set in — found it relatively easy to establish useful relationships.

8. The banker’s boxes had “Abu Ahmed” in open view. Right person. Right country. Connections with his brothers. Everything you could ask for. This is made perfectly clear in the ZDT script in the 2010 scene. The banker’s boxes from Moroccan intelligence provided his full nom de guerre with extensions and his family name “Ibrahim Sayeed” and his brothers, including a brother “Habib” who had been killed in Afghanistan.

Instead of having this information on the computer in 2002 or 2003, readily available, Abu Ahmed / Ibrahim Sayeed only comes up in 2010 when an amazingly, shockingly diligent non-torture-hound researcher digs in and rereads the North African copy files.

This comes after losing 7 fucking years.

We lost 7 years. The foreign intel did not specify this man as a “courier.” But if you had put 20 people on it and looked for all the people who had face time with UBL, he makes the list inside a month. That’s without doing one interrogation.

The torture-hounds went for 7 years treating the banker’s boxes the way the Ark of the Covenant gets treated at the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. ZDT makes this stunningly clear.

At the same time CIA torture-hounds gave us Abu Ghraib. A black eye with Muslims that will go down through the ages.

Problems For Reviewers

Audiences and reviewers have been bludgeoned by the time the story gets to the critical scene from 2010.

— First section of ZDT goes from one torture scene to the next. They bleed, they puke, they do through sleep deprivation. You know that some of them die.

— Second section, things turn against the CIA team. The main “Maya” character — coming out of her apartment in the morning — is attacked by an Al Qaeda team with machine guns. The head psychologist/torturer bails out. Then her best friend is one of 7 CIA people assassinated at Camp Chapman, December 30, 2009.

“Maya” goes into mourning and depression. This gets several scenes.

— Third section. Then and only then we get to a “Legally Blonde”-clone (sans chihuahua) popping up with a “Look what I found!” to present the Moroccan info on “Abu Ahmed.”

There is no set-up. A short discussion, where the audience is already slanted forward to the Abbottabad attack and seeing Seal Team 6 in simulated action.

And no way the audience is going to know what Support Services at Langley would have offered for a competently run Hunt For UBL team back in 2002/2003. You need hands-on experience using Oracle Text. (Or else read this article.)

— The fourth and fifth sections follow “Maya” back to Washington to campaign for approval and then the attack that kills Usama bin Laden.

That’s the deal. We get the evidence and we get next to no help doping it out.


ZDT was produced by Megan Ellison. Financed out of pocket. Given every dollar of money that could be translated to value on the screen. Never hurried. Never pressured.

Her Dad, Larry Ellison, is the founder and CEO of Oracle Corporation. Maker of Oracle Text, among other things. The richest man in California. The single worst manager in the history of IT at suffering goddamned fools.

ZDT gives the torture-hounds at CIA everything they wanted. Every frame. Every example of waterboarding and beatings, every depiction of torture as it squeezes out slivers of information.

As they go year after year getting their crumbs.

And then something more. In 2010 we get to see what competent no-thought-of-torture dog work accomplished. And that is what gets to “Abu Ahmed”/ Ibrahim Sayeed.

Not the Dick Cheney bullshit about copying Israeli torture chambers. Not limiting yourself to the surface of Al Qaeda — the nicknames and nom de guerre chatter — but taking the time to dig through professional intelligence reports.

(No mention is made of modern support tools. That is for Oracle database people using O-Text and for DKOS readers.)

ZDT is not only about history. ZDT is history.

Until Megan Ellison brought us ZDT we had no unclassified verification that Cheney’s Folly had sabotaged the hunt for UBL. Now, it is there for everyone to see. Now, the Morocco analyst in 2010 is depicted in CIA-approved story telling as she walks up with her discovery — not messaging 2002 or 2003 computer image files — having to hand carry the original Moroccan documents to the “Maia” character after doing an individual 2010 search through those tens of thousands of pages in the banker’s boxes.

Seven CIA people were assassinated at Camp Chapman on December 30, 2009. It’s not a stretch to suppose that the Morocco analyst who found the courier “Abu Ahmed” in 2010 was a replacement for one of them.

How can CIA complain about ZDT ??? It is their product.

This new analyst in 2010 didn’t give a shit about torture, which President Obama had shut down. So she was able to do her job competently, even though it took her months to do what would have taken her 5 minutes and 15 seconds if she had had computer support. (Add 5 minutes to type in a SQL query with a CONTAINS clause to specify “Abu Ahmed” in English or in Arabic to the 15 seconds for actually running the query.)

A simple SQL query to an Oracle data and text warehouse with a CONTAINS argument would resemble this code:

(text,Abu-Ahmed-in-Arabic,1) >0 — ??? ????

Set up a document tracking system, do the set-up DBA work, get the data entry done to post the text from the banker’s box documents, scan in first-rate images of the pages, build CONTEXT indexes, implement index_set, then make sure that O-Text works as intended. From there this is a simple enough problem for Oracle users.

Living with Cheney’s Folly, torture, nothing happened.

God bless you, Megan. You too, Larry. You have given America some of the best evidence imaginable for keeping the torture-hounds well away from the intel business. They dearly suck at it.

ZDT demonstrates their helplessness until torture was removed.

We still have a democracy here, implying collective responsibility, so the torture-hounds have made our country look like monsters. That part is not going to change. Abu Ghraib and the hidden CIA torture prisons are in our history for ever. ZDT is a giant step in the right direction.

Photo by Gage Skidmore under Creative Commons License

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