WASHINGTON — Details about how covert agents tracked down Osama bin Laden on Sunday are still sketchy and incomplete, but that the first bread crumb in the intelligence trail possibly came from prisoners subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” is reigniting the debate over torture.
A senior White House official told reporters on Sunday that post-9/11 detainees gave up the nom de guerre of a trusted bin Laden courier, intelligence that eventually, years later, led to the U.S. discovery of bin Laden’s whereabouts in Pakistan.
A few media outlets have reported that the nickname came from captured top al-Qaida operatives Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both men were held for a time at secret CIA prisons overseas and subjected to waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and other harsh physical treatments that were approved by President George W. Bush. Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, the government has disclosed.
This has led supporters of such interrogation methods to claim validation for their value. They were formally banned by President Barack Obama in 2009, but the CIA had previously abandoned the techniques under the weight of intense scrutiny.
Republican Rep. Steve King from Iowa tweeted Monday: “Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?”
Reuters reported that it wasn’t until after the CIA ceased those practices that Mohammed first talked about the courier, but the unnamed officials question whether the al-Qaida agent would have given up the name without the previous physical coersion. And according to the news agency, Bush’s deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, said the success of the manhunt for bin Laden “rested heavily on some of those controversial policies.”
A White House official denied those reports on a morning news show Tuesday. Asked whether waterboarding played a role in leading up to Sunday’s operation, Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan said: “Not to my knowledge.”
He continued: “The information that was collected over the course of nine years or so came from many different sources: human sources, technical sources, as well as sources that detainees provided. It was something as a result of the painstaking work that the analysts did.”
Politically, Obama could have a difficult time claiming victory for bin Laden’s death while still separating himself from the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that got the ball rolling. Especially with Bush-era officials highlighting the importance of the intel extracted from prisoners who underwent waterboarding.
The larger question now is whether the American public will reconsider its distaste for torture if indeed it set us on the path, however long, to find America’s most wanted terrorist.