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Torture Debate Revived following Osama bin Laden Raid

Following the disclosure that Al Qaeda detainees provided information that lead to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the debate over the effectiveness of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding has largely fallen along partisan lines.

One side of the debate reflects former Bush administration officials who are arguing that “advanced interrogation” methods lead to Osama bin Laden while on the other side, Democrats and some Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are arguing that diligence by the intelligence community and detainees who were not subjected to waterboarding and other methods of torture provided the intelligence community with information that lead to Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. “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 told FOX News. Other former Bush administration officials are also perpetuating this argument.

“According to anonymous government sources quoted in the press today, it was the interrogation of al-Qaeda leaders that led to the identification of the courier, who led us to bin Laden’s hiding place. Reports suggest that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself may have given up the identity of the courier,” wrote John Yoo, a former Justice Department official in the Bush administration, in the National Review.

However, waterboarding along with other forms of harsh interrogation provided only small morsels of intelligence. According to officials in the Obama administration, only one detainee who was subjected to harsh interrogation provided some important information. Moreover, individuals like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who had been waterboarded a total of 183 times, misled his interrogators with false information to avoid further interrogations.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) opined in the Washington Post, “The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. 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. McCain was responding to claims made by former CIA Director Michael Hayden, “Consider how the intelligence that led to bin Laden came to hand. It began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information—including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.”

The National Security Council’s Tommy Vietor further undercuts the claims being made by former Bush administration officials, “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003…It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

The nickname of the Al Qaeda courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, that led to the Abbottabad compound was provided by a detainee in Iraq who it is believed was not tortured or otherwise coerced into providing that information. Al Qaeda members who were in U.S. custody did not provide that information even after being waterboarded or subjected to harsh interrogation techniques. In addition to waterboarding, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to sleep deprivation of upwards of 180 hours, was physically slammed into walls and was kept shackled in stress positions. Moreover, Mohammed, when asked about the courier, only provided vague incorrect details suggesting that he was retired or was of little importance.

In contradiction to Mohammed’s knowledge of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Hassan Ghul, an Al Qaeda operative captured in Iraq suggested the true extent of the courier’s ties to bin Laden. Further, Ghul suggested that Kuwaiti was in-fact a trusted courier for bin Laden as well as for Abu Faraj al-Libbi, another senior member of Al Qaeda, and also for Mohammed. Additionally, Ghul pointed out that Kuwaiti’s whereabouts were unknown to him which indicated to the C.I.A. that the courier was more than likely with bin Laden or working with him.

The torture debate falls largely along partisan lines. Democrats argue that harsh interrogations and torture give the U.S. intelligence community a black eye, is un-American and puts American troops in harms way if captured on the battlefield. Retired C.I.A. officer, Glenn L. Carle, told the New York Times in a phone interview, that techniques advocated by former Bush administration officials were ineffective and, “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information…everyone was deeply concerned and most felt it was un-American and did not work.” Carle was charged with the interrogation program of detainees in 2002.

Some Republicans have argued that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, physical injury, implied physical injury and other methods of interrogations are effective. The difficulty with the Republican narrative is that the eventual discovery of the Al Qaeda courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (whose real name has yet to be disclosed) was achieved through less coercive interrogation techniques and was the result of years of hard work by the intelligence community which included painstaking work by the C.I.A. and others to track down leads that often were dead ends.

The importance of the Abbottabad raid is that it sheds light on the fact that former Bush administration officials are attempting to reinterpret the facts surrounding how al-Kuwaiti was discovered. Torture was the least effective method to detect the identity of Kuwaiti. In-fact, while being interrogated in Iraq, Ghul knowingly divulged information to officials and this information was not coerced.

The debate over torture is just that, a debate. The Obama administration is committed to following the letter of the law and avoid its use in future cases. Because the killing of bin Laden resulted from information not gleamed from torturing detainees, the arguments made by many that harsh interrogations have proven to be the least effective tool in the war on terror are further validated.

John McCain’s very public dispute with Michael Hayden and by extension many former Bush administration officials, is a telling one and will perhaps end further speculation as to whether enhanced interrogation techniques are effective. To many, McCain is considered an authority on the subject because the North Vietnamese tortured him while he was a prisoner of war. Additionally, Sen. McCain is the Ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, was the 2008 Republican nominee for president and is well respected in matters of foreign affairs.

McCain argues in his Washington Post piece, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading. Mistreatment of enemy prisoners endangers our own troops, who might someday be held captive. While some enemies, and al-Qaeda surely, will never be bound by the principle of reciprocity, we should have concern for those Americans captured by more conventional enemies, if not in this war then in the next.”

Moving forward, many proponents of torture would be well advised to consider the opinion of Sen. McCain. While some will have policy differences with McCain, many would not deny the fact that he has first hand knowledge of what it is like to experience torture and what one will do to avoid it. The operation that killed Osama bin Laden provides a significant win for the intelligence community. With that established, it is important to learn what went right and what went wrong in order to discover his whereabouts. Pounding the pavement and years of intelligence work made it possible, not the torturing of detainees in U.S. custody.