The successes of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, the old saying goes, are never known and the failures are never forgotten. The takedown of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs, who were guided onto their target by the work of hundreds of intelligence officers around the world, is a welcome exception to this rule. In a similar way, the successful strike on bin Laden forces us to take a fresh look at the notion that enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) are not useful or effective. If recent comments from high-level officials are any indication, EITs played an important part in the hunt for and elimination of the terror mastermind.
Ever since 9⁄11, the CIA has been pounded for not “connecting the dots.” The “dots” in the world of intelligence-gathering can be anything—individuals, places, times, targets, dates, fragments of messages, inscrutable codes—but they mean nothing to policymakers unless or until an intelligence analyst can draw a line from one dot to another and thereby paint at least part of a picture.
That connecting line is crucial. And in the case of taking down bin Laden, that connecting line was apparently provided by sources that were subjected to EITs, according to an NBC interview of CIA director Leon Panetta.
The most likely source to provide what NBC calls “the thread of information” about bin Laden’s trusted courier was Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM), who masterminded the 9⁄11 attacks.
According to the Associated Press, KSM, while being held in a CIA prison somewhere in Eastern Europe, divulged nicknames of key bin Laden aides and couriers. Although he had been subjected to water-boarding, or simulated drowning, several times prior to divulging the names, KSM turned over these fragments of info long after agents had stopped using the technique. Obama administration officials concede, however, that “U.S. intelligence did not learn the identity of the courier until after the CIA interrogation program was terminated,” Reuters reports. In other words, it is possible fear of another round of water-boarding had an impact on KSM.
“We got beat up for it, but those efforts led to this great day,” Marty Martin, a retired CIA officer, told AP.
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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