WASHINGTON (AFP) – Osama bin Laden’s death has reignited debate over the George W. Bush administration’s use of harsh interrogation methods, with supporters claiming the program led to the Al-Qaeda leader’s capture.
Key intelligence over the identity of a courier — among the few men bin Laden trusted — who passed messages from the terror chief to commanders in the field ultimately led US agents to his secured compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.
Detainees held at secret CIA “black sites,” or prisons, told interrogators after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States about the courier known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
Kuwaiti was identified as a protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and an assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, another key Qaeda operative.
The two senior Al-Qaeda leaders may have acknowledged knowing the courier after being subjected to waterboarding, or simulated drowning, and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
The raid on bin-Laden’s compound a week ago “vindicates the Bush administration, whose intelligence architecture marked the path to bin Laden’s door,” former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion article.
Yoo played a critical role in asserting executive authority over the use of harsh interrogation techniques under the Bush administration that are widely regarded as torture.
“Waterboarding produced a huge amount of intel information,” agreed Donald Rumsfeld on Fox News. The former secretary of defense became synonymous with Bush’s “war on terror” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people during the hijackings of four commercial passenger jetliners.
Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York, cited people “very close to the situation” as saying that “initial information came from Khalid Sheik Mohamed after he was waterboarded.”
“So for those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information which directly led us to bin Laden,” he added.
But President Barack Obama’s administration quickly rejected the claim, with officials noting that Mohammed and Libbi provided false information to their interrogators repeatedly and never gave up the courier’s real name, using only his nickname.
And experts have long warned about the unreliability of information obtained under duress. “Nobody with a nickel’s worth of intelligence goes off, after torturing somebody, runs off and acts on that information,” said Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Tracking down bin Laden at his secret lair, from where the Al-Qaeda leader never ventured out and took extreme precautions to avoid detection, required information from a “mosaic of sources,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.
With Republicans claiming the killing of bin Laden justifies the Bush administration’s controversial anti-terror tactics, which Obama has largely rejected, outraging those eager to put to rest a debate that left a stain on the national conscience.
“It’s disheartening to see conversation already turning to old, old debates about interrogation,” said Deborah Pearlstein of Princeton University on the “Opinio Juris” blog, regretting what she called a “fruitless conversation.”
“Put differently, for every ‘maybe some guy in Gitmo said something useful’ story, there’s a ‘some guy in Gitmo said something false that led us to war in Iraq’ story.”
Matthew Alexander, a former senior military interrogator who conducted or supervised over 1,300 interrogations in Iraq leading to the capture of numerous terror leaders, rejected any new debate on “illegal” torture.
“Torture in not moral because it’s inconsistent with our principles, freedom liberty and justice. And also it’s illegal,” Alexander, of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, told AFP.
“I know, because I was in Iraq, and I oversaw interrogations of foreign fighters, that it was Al-Qaeda’s number-one recruiting tool. That’s why it’s extremely counterproductive.”
Republicans pinning the success of the US special operations raid on harsh interrogations “want to steal some of the credit from Obama because they see the election coming up” in 2012, he added.
And the subject was indeed discussed at length during a Republican presidential debate on Thursday, some 18 months from the November 2012 general elections.
“If it turns out that any of the techniques that he (Obama) criticized during the campaign lead to bin Laden’s being identified and killed, he should be asked to explain whether he does or doesn’t support those techniques,” Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, said at the debate.
Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate magazine, noted that some of those reviving the “self-serving” interrogation debate were cited in Bush administration memos on the harsh interrogations or where present when the methods were being approved.
“Do we have to have another big national debate about torture? Really, do we have to?” she asked.