The death of Osama bin Laden has elicited myriad responses among the policymakers charged with tracking him down, the commentators who pontificated about him, and the millions of people whose lives he touched, however indirectly. The news triggered jubilant celebration, somber reflection, and even a subsequent attack on a Pakistani constabulary that killed scores of military recruits.
Already analysts have begun to ponder what bin Laden’s death will augur for the future of U.S. foreign policy. But this discussion has not resolved the debates over the tactics of the previous decade, not any more than many Americans’ joyous celebrations marked an end to the conflicts spurred on by the highest profile manhunt in recent history. Finding Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound required following a complex trail of intelligence gathered across multiple presidential administrations. In the end, the CIA used intelligence about a man who called himself Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, an alleged courier and confidant of bin Laden, to pinpoint the location of the al-Qaeda figurehead.
Nevertheless, for some pundits and officials, the death of Osama bin Laden represents pure vindication. Indeed, several former Bush administration officials, prominent neoconservatives, and their supporters in Congress and the media have loudly proclaimed that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” were instrumental in locating America’s most wanted terrorist—and in the process they have laid credit at the feet of the previous administration. But their claims have amounted to little more than an embellishment of the historical record and a distortion of the real impact of torture on U.S. policy and security.
Leading the vindication crusade have been a number of former Bush administration higher ups, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who said on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, “I think that anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques—let's be blunt—waterboarding, did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn't facing the truth.” Agreeing with Hannity’s assertion that if “Democrats had their way” about the use of such methods, “we wouldn’t have had this intelligence,” Rumsfeld replied, “You’re exactly right.”Former Vice President Dick Cheney offered a similar sentiment on Fox: “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 Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey claimed in the Wall Street Journal that torture yielded the critical identity of bin Laden’s courier. He wrote that the successful operation “began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding.”
While unsubtly attributing most of the credit in finding bin Laden to his former colleagues in the Bush administration, Mukasey wrote that “policies put in place by the very administration that presided over this splendid success promise fewer such successes in the future”—claiming President Obama’s preference for the nonviolent interrogation techniques found in the Army Field Manual and the administration’s release of the so-called “torture memos” will hinder intelligence operations. Recycling a common rightwing talking point that such policies somehow reflect Obama’s contempt for the intelligence community, Mukasey added, “The administration also hounds our intelligence gatherers in ways that can only demoralize them.”
No commentator has played more upon this latter theme than Marc Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and a former Bush speechwriter. Echoing Mukasey’s arguments, Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post: “Now, it turns out that the very CIA interrogators whose lives Obama turned upside down [by ‘accusing them of torture’ in a speech at the National Archives] played a critical role in what the president rightly calls ‘the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.’ It is time for a public apology.”
John Yoo, the former Justice Department attorney (and like Thiessen a visiting fellow at AEI) who co-authored the so-called “torture memos” that speciously stretched the legal limits of how far interrogators could push detainees, writes that the operation that killed Osama bin Laden is “a vindication of the Bush administration’s terrorism policies,” without which there “would have been no enhanced-interrogation program, no terrorist-surveillance program, and hence no intelligence mosaic that could have given us the information that produced this success.” Hence, President Obama “owes [his success] to the tough decisions taken by the Bush administration.” However, David Addington, Yoo’s collaborator on the torture memos, has yet to make a public statement about the role of these practices in the targeted killing of bin Laden.
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill have echoed the claims of these former Bush administration figures. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, “[W]e obtained information several years ago, vital information about the courier for Obama [sic]. We obtained that information through waterboarding. So for those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information which directly led us to bin Laden.”
Similarly, the day after bin Laden’s death, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) said during an interview with CNBC, “The information that eventually led us to this compound was the direct result of enhanced interrogations; one can conclude if we had not used enhanced interrogations, we would not have come to yesterday’s action.”
Torture apologists consistently point to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s alleged disclosure of al-Kuwaiti’s pseudonym to his interrogators. Defending the Bush interrogation and detention programs writ large, Heritage Foundation fellow and former Bush Pentagon official Cully Stimson concluded that “it is reasonably clear that detainees at Guantanamo (and perhaps elsewhere, such as those formerly in CIA custody and now at Guantanamo) … gave the critical nuggets of information that put in motion a series of events that led to bin Laden’s death.” Conservative radio host and Townhall.com editor Guy Benson asserted, “we can dispense with one nonsensical anti-EIT talking point: That they don’t work. They do. Just ask Osama bin Laden.”
Not So Fast
One apparent explanation for this pro-torture broadside from leading Republicans is that it is intended to head off what might be the ultimate rhetorical rebuke of Bush-era counterterrorism policies: that it was President Obama—whose commitment to the “war on terror” they have so frequently impugned—and not President Bush who ultimately felled the al-Qaeda leader. The identification of bin Laden’s courier, reportedly gleaned from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—who was waterboarded repeatedly at the behest of the Bush administration—is accordingly fashioned into a kind of silver bullet to rebuff critiques of the more controversial aspects of the Bush approach to counterterrorism.
But this isn’t so clear after all. According to initial reports, Mohammed, who was waterboarded at least 183 times at CIA black site prisons, did not in fact divulge this particular piece of information under the duress of waterboarding or any other method of torture. Rather, he divulged it months later under standard interrogation techniques and even then dismissed that al-Kuwaiti was of any importance. By then, al-Kuwaiti’s name may have already been disclosed by another detainee.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wrote in the Washington Post that CIA director Leon Panetta told him: “The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti—the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden—as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts, or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, affirmed this, saying at a press conference, “To the best of our knowledge, based on a look, none of [the relevant intelligence] came as a result of harsh interrogation practices.”
Still, the torture apologists claim that the mere fact that Mohammed underwent these procedures leaves open the debate about their effectiveness. Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes that “the point of the CIA’s program wasn’t to make KSM talk” while he was being waterboarded. “The point was to break him, so that he would be more compliant when discussing al Qaeda during debriefings.” Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) echoed this line of argument on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show. In a rather regrettable choice of target, Santorum suggested that McCain, who was tortured during the Vietnam War, “doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works. I mean, you break somebody, and after they're broken, they become cooperative. And that's when we got this information.”
But the role of waterboarding in Mohammed’s half-disclosure is somewhat immaterial, since it appears that it was another al-Qaeda operative, Hassan Ghul, who divulged al-Kuwaiti’s role as a trusted confidante and courier for bin Laden. It is unclear whether Ghul was tortured before or during his interrogation, but the CIA has said that he was not waterboarded. According to the New York Times, “One official recalled that Mr. Ghul was ‘quite cooperative,’ saying that rough treatment, if any, would have been brief.”
Moreover, detainees under duress of torture frequently made false confessions to mislead their interrogators or to stop the pain of their treatment. Mohammed himself told the Red Cross: “During the harshest period of my interrogation I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop. … I’m sure [this] wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts being placed in the U.S.”
Another detainee originally thought to be a high-level captive was Abu Zubaida, a Palestinian President Bush once publicly described as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations.” Other officials described him as a close personal associate of bin Laden and a planner of the 9/11 attacks. It turned out that he was none of these things. However, while being tortured, Zubaida confessed knowledge of several false plots that, according to the Washington Post, “sent hundreds of CIA and FBI investigators scurrying in pursuit of phantoms.” They quote a former intelligence official who bemoaned, “We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms.”
Some false leads proved to be devastatingly consequential. Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan national who was captured in Pakistan in 2001 and later tortured at a black site prison in Egypt, “remembered” under torture that Saddam Hussein’s regime had trained al-Qaeda fighters in the use of weapons of mass destruction. In the run-up to the Iraq War, President Bush and members of his administration would frequently repeat this claim. In October 2002, for example, Bush told a Cincinnati audience: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and gases." Al-Libi later recanted this claim. Indeed, intelligence officials had determined that it was probably false as early as February 2002, but by the time these doubts were made public, the war in Iraq was already well underway.
Torture advocates frequently cite al-Libi as another source who provided the identity of bin Laden’s courier, which is not entirely accurate. Al-Libi not only denied knowing al-Kuwaiti but even provided a false name for him, calling him Maulawi Jan and sending intelligence analysts on yet another wild goose chase. While interrogators may have gleaned the importance of al-Kuwaiti from the evident desire of al-Libi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to dissemble about him, it appears that it was Hassan Ghul—who was apparently not tortured—who provided the most reliable information about him, including not only his real name but also a vital description of his position.
In the final analysis, torture appears to have played at most a marginal role in gathering the intelligence that led to bin Laden. Given the disastrously false information these techniques yielded on other occasions—not to mention the terrorist recruiting tool that images of torture and Guantanamo Bay turned out to be—it is obvious how detrimental the use of torture has been (to say nothing of the innumerable legal and moral implications).
So it is a curious thing that torture immediately emerged at the forefront of so many rightwing responses to Osama bin Laden’s death. If the moment called for forthright reflections on which tactics were helpful and which were not in the hunt for bin Laden, then more attention should be spent on revisiting the rationale for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One reason for the renewed torture debate is partisan politics. With Obama having avoided a rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq, escalated the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and affirmed the principle of U.S. unilateralism with drone strikes and raids like the one that killed bin Laden in Pakistan, his approach to torture remains one of the few breaches of continuity between his security policy and that of President Bush. Hence, many Republicans have simply used a moment of national elation in an effort to discredit Obama and shift the acclaim to President Bush (and, by extension, themselves), whose administration remains unpopular years out of office.
But there is also a more sinister explanation for this outlandish campaign. A November 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee investigation into interrogation methods, declassified in April 2009, discovered that torture techniques were “based on tactics used by Chinese Communists against American soldiers during the Korean War for the purpose of eliciting false confessions for propaganda purposes.” Relating this to the intelligence gathering in the run-up to the Iraq War, McClatchy reported at the time:
“A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration. ‘There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,’ the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. ‘The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack [after 9/11]. But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that [former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed] Chalabi and others had told them were there.’”
If torture played a marginal role in the hunt for bin Laden, it nonetheless proved quite useful for providing a post-9/11 rationale for regime change in Iraq, a move favored by virtually all of the above torture proponents and advocated by prominent neoconservatives long before the attacks themselves.
Of course, the terrorist threat to the United States remains a possible explanation for why some policymakers and pundits subscribe to torture’s utility and argue that any constraints on interrogation practice—such as those provided for in international law—represent constraints on the exercise of U.S. power.
It is for this last reason that the evolving tactics of the U.S. “war on terror”—from torture to targeted drone strikes—must be closely examined at every step. If violations of law and morality are not sufficient to stop the use of these methods, the United States should at least cast a critical and unflinching eye on their utility.