The killing of Osama bin Laden had the potential to be a transformative moment for President Barack Obama. No longer easily portrayable as a vacillating, indecisive leader, he was the commander-in-chief who took a risk and brought down America’s most wanted man—something his predecessor, George W. Bush, had talked tough about but failed to accomplish. Heading into his 2012 re-election campaign, the event seemed likely to take the caricature of a foreign-policy weakling off the table.
But some Republicans quickly sought to portray the successful raid as a vindication of the very policies that Obama had campaigned against and then reversed upon taking office—in particular, the Central Intelligence Agency’s defunct secret prison program where detainees were subjected to an array of what the Bush administration referred euphemistically to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Critics said those harsh tactics, like the controlled drowning technique called waterboarding, had stained America’s moral standing by giving official sanction to torture. Seizing a chance to redeem their reputations, the former Bush officials, who insist that the tactics did not violate anti-torture laws, argued that the much-maligned program had provided crucial information that eventually led to bin Laden.
“The intelligence that led to bin Laden,” wrote Michael Mukasey, who served as Bush’s attorney general from 2007 to 2009, “began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 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.”
Mukasey, a former federal judge whose refusal to say that waterboarding was “torture” became a major issue at his confirmation hearing, went on to blast Obama in the pages of the Wall Street Journal for dismantling the CIA interrogation program—and for reopening criminal investigations into whether some CIA interrogators tortured prisoners in ways that went beyond what the Bush administration had approved. “Policies put in place by the very administration that presided over this splendid success promise fewer such successes in the future. Those policies make it unlikely that we’ll be able to get information from those whose identities are disclosed by the material seized from bin Laden. The administration also hounds our intelligence gatherers in ways that can only demoralize them,” wrote Mukasey.
Even Republicans who had not served in the Bush administration seized on the critique that is likely to reverberate during the 2012 presidential campaign. Never mind that the Democratic President seems more interested in killing terrorists with drone attacks than in detaining and interrogating them—Republicans are building the case for restoring the “enhanced” interrogation program the next time their party wins the White House. Among them, congressman Peter King, head of the House homeland security committee, said on Fox News, “We obtained information several years ago about the courier for bin Laden, and we obtained that information through waterboarding. So to those who say waterboarding doesn’t work and should be stopped, we got vital information that directly led us to bin Laden.”
The factual basis for such sweeping claims is disputed. A range of government officials suggested a far more complicated picture, one in which the intelligence trail that led to bin Laden—starting with the nickname of a key courier who turned out to be his contact with the outside world, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti—was learned not from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, but from an allied intelligence service and from other detainees who were not waterboarded. Moreover, rather than alerting interrogators to the potential importance of the courier, Mohammed instead misled them, by assuring them that the man had retired from the terrorism network. Only years later, thanks to the interrogation of a more co-operative detainee who was captured after the Bush administration abandoned waterboarding, did analysts decide Ahmed might be important—a conclusion they reached not because Mohammed helped them after being tortured, but because they realized that he and another detainee were concealing what they must have known about him—in spite of both being subjected to harsh treatment.
Mukasey’s version of events was quickly rebuked by none other than John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona and the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee. McCain is also a long-time opponent of torture who pushed an enhanced anti-torture law through Congress. McCain had been taken prisoner during the Vietnam War and endured torture himself. Writing in the Washington Post on May 11, he disclosed how CIA director Leon Panetta had portrayed the intelligence trail to him in a private letter.
“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,” McCain wrote, adding that, “In fact, the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator—none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee—information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden—was obtained through standard, non-coercive means.” Mukasey’s claim was “false,” and in a follow-up Senate floor speech, McCain called upon the former attorney general to correct his “misstatement.”
On Monday, part of Panetta’s letter to McCain was made public. It bolstered McCain’s account but also said there was no way to know whether bin Laden would have been caught had the Bush administration used less aggressive methods. Panetta wrote that the trail to the Abbottabad compound was the result of “intensive intelligence work” over 10 years. “There was no one ‘essential and indispensable’ key piece of information that led us to this conclusion,” he said; there were “multiple streams of intelligence,” both from detainees and others. “Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques,” Panetta wrote, but, “whether those techniques were the ‘only timely and effective way’ to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively.”
To critics of the Bush-era interrogation program, the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided false information about the courier was just more evidence that such coercive techniques were a mistake. At a panel discussion otherwise heavy with former Bush officials at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on Monday, Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, said that the interrogation program had provided dubious information at the cost of America’s moral leadership: when prisoners were waterboarded, she said, “sometimes they told the truth and sometimes they lied.” And, taking aim at Mukasey, a fellow panellist, she said, “The facts, as a matter of record, as we now know them, are not as Judge Mukasey just pointed out,” adding: “We should be having this conversation based on facts and not fantasy.”
But Mukasey saw Mohammed’s deception differently—emphasizing that the courier became of interest to the CIA precisely because they realized that Mohammed had gone to the trouble of lying about him. That became one piece of the “mosaic” that led to bin Laden’s lair years later, he said. And waterboarding was what convinced Mohammed to start talking to interrogators, after being totally non-compliant at first, a former Bush official said.
Still, Mukasey acknowledged at the forum that McCain was correct that the CIA already had learned the nickname of the courier before Mohammed talked about him. But that didn’t matter. “Was there a memo in the file beforehand containing that name? Yes, absolutely, there was, but it was completely disregarded because it came from someone insignificant and it was not regarded as significant until it came out of [Mohammed’s] mouth.”
At the same time, by this week, he and other Bush officials appeared to be trying to reframe the debate away from the bin Laden case and to the more open question of whether the Bush-era interrogation program had extracted good intelligence from detainees more generally—and whether Obama was wrong to shut it down.
Among them, John Rizzo, who served as the CIA’s top lawyer under Bush, told the AEI audience that the enhanced interrogation program for high-value detainees “did yield huge benefits,” even as he conceded that it was “unknowable” whether some or any of the bin Laden intelligence would have been acquired without it. But in any case, he said, the Obama administration’s approach of restricting CIA interrogators to the same interrogation manual the military is required to use, one that was written to comply with the Geneva Conventions, was far less effective. “The program the U.S. government has in place today doesn’t come close to producing the kind of intelligence the previous program produced,” Rizzo asserted. Expect to hear that more often as the 2012 election approaches.