The debate over the use of harsh interrogation techniques during the Bush administration is being rekindled by the successful operation against Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, which was based on information about the courier extracted from detained terror suspects.
Rep. Peter T. King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said initial clues to bin Laden’s location can be traced to the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the interrogations of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former No. 3 al Qaeda leader captured in 2005.
“Khalid Shaikh Mohammed basically gave up nothing until after he had been waterboarded,” Mr. King, New York Republican, said in an interview Tuesday. “It was after that that he first mentioned the courier, he identified him by his nom de guerre, and after that … al Libbi also gave us additional information on the courier.”
White House counterterrorism coordinator John Brennan said Tuesday that he is not aware that waterboarding produced intelligence that led to the identity of bin Laden’s compound.
“Not to my knowledge. The information that was acquired over the course of nine years or so came from many different sources — human sources, technical sources, as well as information that detainees provided,” Mr. Brennan said on MSNBC.
Mr. King said the Bush administration’s overall handling of terrorist detainees was vindicated by Sunday’s successful raid.
“Absolutely. This is a vindication,” he said. “Without that, we may not have gotten bin Laden.”
Administration officials said tracking one particular bin Laden courier ultimately produced key intelligence that ended the worldwide manhunt with Sunday’s commando raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that left the al Qaeda leader dead.
Work by analysts who “pieced it all together” led to the Abbottabad compound last year and the Sunday raid, Mr. Brennan said, noting that no single piece of information resulted in finding the compound and that data from detained terrorists were mixed.
“Sometimes they gave up information willingly as far as offering some details; some of it was disinformation,” he said. “Sometimes they provided information that they didn’t realize had embedded clues in it that we were able to exploit.”
A senior Obama administration official who briefed reporters Sunday night said intelligence agencies had focused on finding couriers for bin Laden since 2001, with one trusted messenger having “our constant attention.”
Interrogated detainees provided the courier’s nom de guerre, identified him as a protege of Mohammed and al-Libbi, and revealed he was “one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden,” the official said.
The courier also was living with and protecting bin Laden, but intelligence agencies were unable for years to learn his name or location.
Then, four years ago, the courier was identified by name, and then two years later he and his brother were spotted as operating in a specific area of Pakistan, the official said.
“Still, we were unable to pinpoint exactly where they lived due to extensive operational security on their part,” the official said.
In August the couriers’ residence was located as the Abbottabad compound, triggering the covert operation that began in September and ended on Sunday. Both the courier and his brother were killed in the raid.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters on Tuesday that “nothing has been found to indicate that this came out of Guantanamo.”
“And people were questioned, but there were no positive answers as to the identity of this No. 1 courier,” Mrs. Feinstein, California Democrat, said.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said he believes harsh interrogations likely contributed to finding bin Laden.
“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,” Mr. Cheney said Monday on Fox News Channel.
Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in an interview with Newsmax that “normal interrogation techniques” helped lead searchers to bin Laden, but not waterboarding.
“It certainly points up the fact that the structures that President Bush put into place — military commissions, Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act, indefinite detention and humane treatment, but intensive interrogation to be sure — all contributed to the success we’ve had in the global war on terror,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the debate over whether harsh interrogation produced intellgience on bin Laden is a distraction because the successful raid was based on multiple types of information sources.
“There is no way that information obtained by [enhanced interrogation techniques] was the decisive intelligence that led us directly to bin Laden,” he said. “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.”