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In fact, Panetta says, “intelligence garnered from water-boarded detainees was used to track down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and kill him,” according to NBC’s reporting. “We had a multiple source—a multiple series of sources—that provided information with regards to the situation,” according to Panetta. “Clearly some of it came from detainees and the interrogation of detainees, but we also had information from other sources as well.”
Rep. Peter King (R-NY), was less opaque. “The road to bin Laden began with water-boarding,” he told NBC News. As chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and a member of the Permanent Select Intelligence Committee, King would know.
In the cold calculus of this war, King has concluded that the ends justify the means, that innocent life is more important than a terrorist’s comfort: “I use the example of September 10th, 2001, if we had captured Mohammed Atta and we knew he was going to kill thousands of Americans but we didn’t know when or where, are we saying now you wouldn’t hold his head under water to save 3,000 lives?”
When put that way, most Americans would agree with King’s sentiment, and understandably so. When characterized as torture, Americans become a bit more squeamish about EITs, and understandably so.
The reason the “thread” that led the CIA and the SEALs to bin Laden is such a big deal is President Barack Obama’s very vocal views on EITs. Water-boarding “violates our ideals and our values,” Obama said in 2009. “I do believe that it is torture…And that is why I put an end to these practices.”
The Bush administration, on the other hand, rejected the characterization of EITs as torture and limited the use of EITs to a small handful of individuals. “We used this technique on three people,” President George W. Bush said in an interview after leaving office. “We gained…information to protect the country. And it was the right thing to do as far as I’m concerned.”
It’s a policy difference, a difference of worldviews and philosophy, and that’s what elections are about. Obama’s 2009 executive order that reversed Bush administration policy on EITs authorizes only those interrogation techniques approved by the U.S. Army Field Manual. The problem is, those techniques may not have—probably would not have—persuaded KSM to say much of anything.
The intelligence community in general and the Bush administration in particular have been forced to defend their post-9/11 tactics ad nauseam and criticized for not connecting all the pre-9/11 dots. Now that those tactics are helping to connect the dots—and in fact clearing a path all the way to bin Laden—perhaps it’s time to stop criticizing them.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.
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