Al-Qaida claim is called coerced

Prisoner fabricated ties to Iraq while in foreign custody

December 09, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration based a crucial prewar assertion about ties between Iraq and al-Qaida on detailed statements made by a prisoner while in Egyptian custody who later said he had fabricated them to escape harsh treatment, according to current and former government officials.

The officials said the captive, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, provided his most specific and elaborate accounts about ties between Iraq and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network only after he was secretly handed over to Egypt by the United States in January 2002, in a process known as rendition.

The new disclosure provides the first public evidence that bad intelligence on Iraq might have resulted partly from the administration's heavy reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations of al-Qaida members and others detained as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The Bush administration used al-Libi's accounts as the basis for its prewar claims, now discredited, that ties between Iraq and al-Qaida included training in explosives and chemical weapons.

The fact that al-Libi recanted after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and that intelligence based on his remarks was withdrawn by the CIA in March 2004 has been public for more than a year. But U.S. officials had not previously acknowledged either that al-Libi made the false statements in foreign custody or that al-Libi contended that his statements had been coerced.

A government official said that some intelligence provided by al-Libi about al-Qaida had been accurate and that al-Libi's claims that he had been treated harshly in Egyptian custody had not been corroborated.

A classified Defense Intelligence Agency report issued in February 2002 that expressed skepticism about al-Libi's credibility on questions related to Iraq and al-Qaida was based in part on the knowledge that al-Libi was no longer in U.S. custody when he made the detailed statements and that he might have been subjected to harsh treatment, the officials said. The officials said that the CIA's decision to withdraw the intelligence based on al-Libi's claims had been made because of his later assertions, beginning in January 2004, that he had fabricated them to obtain better treatment from his captors.

At the time of his capture in Pakistan in late 2001, al-Libi, a Libyan, was the highest-ranking al-Qaida leader in U.S. custody.

While he made some statements about Iraq and al-Qaida when in U.S. custody, the officials said, it was not until after he was handed over to Egypt that he made the most specific assertions, which were later used by the Bush administration as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained al-Qaida members to use biological and chemical weapons.

Beginning in March 2002, with the capture of an al-Qaida operative named Abu Zubaydah, the CIA adopted a practice of maintaining custody itself of the highest-ranking captives, a practice that became the main focus of recent controversy related to detention of suspected terrorists.

The agency currently holds between two and three dozen high-ranking terrorist suspects in secret prisons around the world. Reports that the prisons have included locations in Eastern Europe have stirred intense discomfort on the Continent and have dogged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Europe this week.

Al-Libi was returned to U.S. custody in February 2003, when he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to the current and former government officials. He withdrew his claims about ties between Iraq and al-Qaida in January 2004, and his current location is not known. A CIA spokesman refused yesterday to comment on al-Libi's case.

The current and former government officials who agreed to discuss the case were granted anonymity because most details surrounding al-Libi's case remain classified.

During his time in Egyptian custody, al-Libi was among a group of what U.S. officials have described as about 150 prisoners sent by the United States from one foreign country to another since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for the purposes of interrogation. U.S. officials, including Rice, have defended the practice, saying it draws on language and cultural expertise of U.S. allies, particularly in the Middle East, and provides an important tool for interrogation. They have said that the United States carries out the renditions only after obtaining explicit assurances from the receiving countries that the prisoners will not be tortured.

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