Sleuthing, not torture, led to bin Laden

Media and local residents gather at the Pakistani house where Osama bin Laden was killed.
Media and local residents gather at the Pakistani house where Osama bin Laden was killed. (Associated Press)
Posted: May 05, 2011

LISTENING TO some conservative pundits and pols this week, you could almost be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that Osama bin Laden wasn't taken down by a crack team of Navy SEALs but rather by Jack Bauer, the fictional terrorist-slapping star of TV's "24."

Indeed, the great debate over what advocates call "enhanced interrogation" - and the rest of the civilized world calls "torture" - roared back into the national conversation with bin Laden's killing, thanks to unsupported claims that waterboarding and other extreme measures helped the CIA locate the terrorist's Pakistani lair.

"Wonder what President Obama thinks of waterboarding now?" asked Iowa's ultraconservative GOP Rep. Steve King, in a post filed on Twitter even before any information about the long hunt for the al Qaeda leader had been made public.

Then torture-backers got a boost from an unexpected source: Obama's handpicked CIA director, Leon Panetta - a critic of waterboarding. He acknowledged to NBC's Brian Williams on Tuesday that some al Qaeda detainees had received harsh interrogation - a long-established fact - and that some of what they said may have played a role in the bin Laden hunt, although he was vague and offered no specifics. He quickly added it's "an open question" whether the same information could have been gained through traditional methods.

But other more detailed investigations of the bin Laden search - focusing on actual detainees and dates - have made it clear that at the most, torture-obtained intelligence played a tiny part in actually finding the 9/11 mastermind, and it's quite possible that torture played absolutely no helpful role at all.

Indeed, one former senior Air Force interrogator from the Iraq War, who has written two books under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander, told the Daily News last night that he believes that the waterboarding of top bin Laden aides in the early 2000s may have actually slowed down the search by a couple of years.

Alexander - author of the recent Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al Qaeda Terrorist - said that waterboarding top bin Laden aide Khalid Sheikh Mohammed led to phony leads about the terrorist's courier, and a second al Qaeda higher-up gave agents a fake name. "That led to the CIA wasting time and resources," he said.

The bottom line: Torture was not what led to the killing of bin Laden on Monday.

What did? A combination of old-fashioned detective work, including tracing a license plate, the high-tech interception of an overseas phone call and satellite surveillance.

"It's modern, sophisticated professional intelligence work," said John D. Hutson, former judge advocate general of the Navy, retired rear admiral and a harsh critic of torture that took place during the George W. Bush presidency.

"It wasn't thumbscrews."

You wouldn't know that from reading the likes of John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer (and former Inquirer op-ed columnist) who OK'd torture practices during the Bush era. He called the bin Laden killing "a vindication of the Bush administration's terrorism policies and shows that success comes from continuing those policies, not rejecting them."

Many Americans believed those tactics had indeed been rejected with the election of Obama in 2008. After all, there was scant evidence that waterboarding - an ancient form of simulated drowning used on Sheikh Mohammed and two other "high value" detainees in 2002 and '03 - or other rough interrogation methods had prevented major attacks, nor did it produce bin Laden or his No. 2, Aymen al-Zawahiri.

What it did do - as shown in numerous polls - is batter America's human-rights image around the globe. Many experts also argued that reports of torture at the Guantanamo Bay detainee camp and Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison made Americans less safe by inspiring a new generation of radical jihadists.

Yesterday, even some pundits who advocated for torture during the Bush years acknowledged there was little conclusive evidence that the practice helped the CIA find bin Laden.

Michael Smerconish, the Philadelphia-based talk-radio host, said in an email interview that "Panetta seemed to hedge with Brian Williams. There does not seem to be an 'ah ha' moment in any of this but rather, the painstaking assembly of a bread-crumb trail to the house provided by the courier."

The New York Times reported yesterday that torture "played a small role at most" and confirmed that Sheikh Mohammed - who was waterboarded 183 times - and another detainee who received harsh treatment provided misleading, unhelpful information about bin Laden's courier.

There was also harsh interrogation - but not waterboarding - of a third detainee captured in Iraq named Hassan Ghul, and he did provide useful intelligence about the courier. But the Times article also notes: "One official recalled that Mr. Ghul was 'quite cooperative,' saying that rough treatment, if any, would have been brief" - bolstering the notion that torture was no help at all.

Interrogators like Alexander have noted that even when torture does produce a lead, it's often possible that the same information could have been found through traditional methods. What's more, they insist that torture is highly counterproductive, producing false leads because inmates tell their captors what they want to hear.

"At the bare minimum you'll get lies - or you'll get nothing," Alexander said.

Real progress came after a good decision made at the start of Bush's second term that had nothing to do with torture - placing more agents on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort called Operation Cannonball. Another key breakthrough came from intercepted phone calls between bin Laden's courier and his family.

It may disappoint some, but finding bin Laden was more Lt. Columbo than Jack Bauer, albeit with some 21st-century high-tech tools.

Meanwhile, there is something else that bothers the likes of Alexander and former Navy judge advocate Hutson, which is that the heated argument over whether torture works distracts from the bigger arguments against it.

Torture is illegal, after all - as recognized by the U.N. Torture Convention signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, and by a U.S. tradition of prosecuting waterboarding before the Bush era. And most people find it immoral, too.

"It eliminates our opportunity to take the high road and discourage other countries" from torturing, Hutson said. "It allows the United States to become the lowest common denominator."

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