The killing of Osama bin Laden has reignited a heated political debate over the value of “enhanced interrogation techniques”–what many call torture–in the fight against terrorism.
The harsh techniques were authorized under the Bush administration and championed over the last decade by several Bush officials as crucial tools in the effort to thwart terror plots and ultimately defeat Islamic extremism. But most human-rights lawyers call them illegal, and although President Obama has adopted some aspects of his predecessors policies on the war on terror, he has denounced the use of such techniques as ineffective and “a recruitment tool for terrorists.”
The debate over interrogations has largely faded from the news over the last year or two, but since the announcement of bin Laden’s killing Sunday night, it has re-emerged. Conservative supporters of such techniques argue that the bin Laden operation proves they are effective. “I would assume that the enhanced interrogation program that we put in place produced some of the results that led to bin Laden’s ultimate capture,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said on Fox News Monday.
Liberal opponents counter that it proves no such thing. “To the best of our knowledge, based on a look, none of [the information that led to bin Laden] came as a result of harsh interrogation practices,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, said the same day.
But the publicly available facts paint a far grayer picture. There’s little concrete evidence that enhanced techniques were crucial in producing information that uncovered bin Laden’s whereabouts. But it’s not impossible that they played a role.
Using this New York Times report as a guide, here are the key data points in the sequence of events that produced the intelligence that led us to bin Laden:
• In 2002 and 2003, interrogators learned about an al Qaeda courier who used the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti–but they appear not to have known of his significance.
• In March 2003, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (pictured), alleged to be the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan.
• In the following months, Mohammed, also known as KSM, was water-boarded numerous times. The subject of Kuwaiti, the courier, does not appear to have come up during this time.
In October 2003–months after the waterboarding had ended–KSM was first asked about Kuwaiti, and said that he was “retired” and not important.
• In 2004, another top al Qaeda operative, Hassan Ghul, was captured in Iraq.
• Ghul told interrogators that Kuwaiti was in fact a trusted courier who was close to bin Laden, to KSM and to Abu Faraj al-Libi, al Qaeda’s operational chief. The CIA has said Ghul wasn’t waterboarded. It did ask the Justice Department to authorize other harsh techniques for his interrogation, but it’s unclear whether they were ever used.
• The CIA then returned to KSM, armed with what Ghul had told them about Kuwati. But KSM stuck to his story.
• Then in 2005, Libi was captured. He denied knowing Kuwaiti at all, and gave a different name for bin Laden’s courier–a name the CIA ultimately concluded Libi had made up. As with Ghul, the CIA has denied waterboarding Libi. Again, it’s unclear whether he was subjected to other harsh techniques.
• Because KSM and Libi had seemed eager to steer the CIA away from Kuwaiti, interrogators concluded that Kuwaiti was being protected, and therefore must be a key figure. As a result, they stayed on his trail, eventually learning his name and whereabouts. And in the end, Kuwaiti unknowingly led them to bin Laden. Perhaps fittingly, he was killed in Sunday’s raid along, with his boss.
What to make of this?
The key piece of information in the chain of events appears to have come from Ghul. It was he who positively vouched for Kuwaiti’s importance–the denials from KSM and Libi were only helpful because of what Ghul had already said. And although the CIA has said it didn’t waterboard Ghul, we don’t know whether it used other harsh techniques–slamming him into a wall, for instance, or keeping him awake for days on end. And if it did do so, we don’t know whether those techniques produced the crucial intelligence.
It’s certainly possible, especially since we know that the CIA asked the Justice Department to authorize such techniques for use on Ghul. But again, we just don’t have enough information to know conclusively one way or the other.
The upshot is likely to be that those who previously believed that harsh interrogation methods are a crucial tool for fighting terrorism will continue to believe that. And those who thought that the amount of useful information produced by such techniques is outweighed by the damage they do to America’s reputation will stick to their guns, too. The killing of bin Laden may have struck a major blow against al Qaeda–but it won’t be enough to resolve one of the most divisive debates of the post-9/11 era.