The release of a partisan Senate report on the CIA’s past interrogation program has renewed the debate over the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation methods. These are methods that the Obama administration has often denounced, even while taking credit for killing Osama bin Laden and while continuing the similarly controversial practice of lethal drone strikes.
Controversy surrounds the new Senate report. Critics dismiss it as a partisan hatchet job with a transparent slant and dubious conclusions. Current and former intelligence officials express grave concerns over the security implications of releasing sensitive information that will endanger Americans at home and abroad. Another debate centers on the extent to which enhanced interrogation methods can ever be legally and morally justified, while similar if not identical questions surround the use of lethal drones.
Still another hotly contested question is whether enhanced interrogation methods work. The report claims that the CIA’s enhanced interrogations were “not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.” The issue has obvious relevance to the bin Laden killing.
President Obama touted the killing frequently in his 2012 re-election campaign and since, including in his recent speech promising to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State terrorists. He has cited the killing of bin Laden as one of his leading accomplishments.
There are three problems with that. First, our nation’s intelligence and military personnel answered the call of duty to gather the intelligence and undertake the mission. “Finding bin Laden was a triumph of bureaucratic intelligence gathering and analysis” that “improved markedly after 9/11 under President Bush,” according to Mark Bowden’s definitive account on the killing of bin Laden.
Second, “it is difficult to imagine any president of the United States who, under the circumstances, wouldn’t have ordered the strike against bin Laden,” as P.J. O’Rourke observed. “Although there is Jimmy Carter,” Mr. O’Rourke acknowledged. “Thank you for not being Jimmy Carter.”
Third, the Obama administration has consistently ignored an inconvenient truth about the mission. The enhanced interrogations that Mr. Obama has so frequently denounced actually yielded important intelligence that helped identify bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
In his book, Mr. Bowden recounts some of the key intelligence gathered using harsh questioning and waterboarding. Coercive methods yielded descriptions of bin Laden’s courier from two different al Qaeda operatives. In addition, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed provided a noteworthy characterization about the courier in “one of his many waterboarding sessions.” A fourth source facing harsh methods at a secret CIA detention center separately corroborated the courier’s importance. Tracking the courier led to bin Laden.
“At bottom, we know we got important, even critical intelligence from individuals subjected to these enhanced interrogation techniques,” Leon Panetta wrote in his recent memoir. As Mr. Obama’s own CIA director at the time of the Abbottabad raid, Mr. Panetta had access to all of the relevant intelligence and understood the yearslong, painstaking and steady accumulation of one lead after another that finally pointed to bin Laden’s probable hideout. No single piece of intelligence from any source clinched the matter, but enhanced interrogations provided important pieces of the puzzle.
In particular, Mr. Panetta admits that “harsh interrogation did cause some prisoners to yield to their captors and produced leads that helped our government understand al Qaeda’s organization, methods, and leadership.” The former CIA director concedes that harsh techniques often served “precisely” as intended on a prisoner to “break him down and convince him that he has no choice but to cooperate.” Mr. Panetta acknowledges that interrogators “extracted” useful intelligence “after unsavory techniques were used.”
Those techniques yielded what Mr. Panetta called “critical intelligence” in finding bin Laden, but Mr. Obama seldom misses an opportunity to denounce them. With fanfare and sanctimony, the president in 2009 “rejected the false choice between our security and our ideals” by “banning torture without exception.” He recently reiterated that America “tortured some folks” using interrogation methods that “any fair-minded person would believe were torture.”
Never mind that the relevant legal question at issue involved a federal statute. Never mind that the so-called torture memos that Mr. Obama controversially declassified contained legal analysis of the statutory provisions. Never mind that those provisions emphatically do not turn on how a fair-minded person would define a vague colloquial term whose commonly understood definition can include anything that might cause mental or physical suffering. Never mind, most of all, that the president’s drone strike policy has no better legal or moral footing than enhanced interrogation.
Mr. Obama famously chided America’s entrepreneurs not to take credit for their commercial success. “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that,” he said. “Somebody else made that happen.” Yet, in trying to distract from a long list of foreign policy failures, the most significant achievement that the Obama administration claims as its own is the one to which it is least entitled.
• Gayle Trotter is an attorney and writer.