The Big Lie: Torture Got Bin Laden

May 3 2011 @ 10:56am

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Dave Weigel predicts Republican spin:

Expect to hear more about this report that the information that led to the tailing of bin Laden's courier, and eventually to his death, was acquired in interrogations that Obama ended once he took office. It may not be Republican candidates pointing this out. They don't need to. George W. Bush has a considerable amen chorus in the press, with former staffers like Marc Thiessen, Michael Gerson, and John Yoo writing regular columns about how the 43rd president was right.

Predict it? It's already become a meme. Last night, O'Reilly simply said "What about the waterboarding?" before moving on to other issues. A military reader writes how Fox is leading with the torture lie:

Driving right now – flipped on Fox News Channel out of curiosity on Sirius.  Since 07h30, they have been openly encouraging waterboarding and have at least 6 times that I've noticed said that the reason we got OBL is directly attributable to what had been revealed during waterboarding sessions.  I am, in two words, fucking disgusted.

Here's Andrew Malcolm:

That previous president authorized enhanced interrogation techniques which convinced folks like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to give up, among many other things, the name of their top-secret courier, now deceased.

Leave aside the horrifying fact that Republicans, seeking to score some ownership of this triumph, would look to torture as their contribution. Why not the beefed up on-the-ground intelligence from 2005 on? That's Bush's legacy that Obama built on. Besides, there is no evidence that it played any part whatsoever. From the NYT:

Prisoners in American custody told stories of a trusted courier. When the Americans ran the man’s pseudonym past two top-level detainees — the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed; and Al Qaeda’s operational chief, Abu Faraj al-Libi — the men claimed never to have heard his name. That raised suspicions among interrogators that the two detainees were lying and that the courier probably was an important figure.

My italics. So in torturing these two men, interrogators got nothing of substance. In fact, it was only by assuming that these men were lying under torture that the investigation continued. It was subsequently, during normal interrogations that KSM gave us a central clue:

Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

To repeat: in the one instance we now clearly know about, the CIA is telling us that torture gave them lies. Which they were. Only when traditional interrogation was used did we get the actual names of the couriers. Marcy Wheeler looks at the current data set:

We can conclude that either KSM shielded the courier’s identity entirely until close to 2007, or he told his interrogators that there was a courier who might be protecting bin Laden early in his detention but they were never able to force him to give the courier’s true name or his location, at least not until three or four years after the waterboarding of KSM ended. That’s either a sign of the rank incompetence of KSM’s interrogators (that is, that they missed the significance of a courier protecting OBL), or a sign he was able to withstand whatever treatment they used with him.

Follow up here. Jane Mayer's thoughts. Brian Beutler focuses on the flaws in the AP story torture apologists latched onto. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld himself has denied that torture played any role in finding bin Laden:

“It is true that some information that came from normal interrogation approaches at Guantanamo did lead to information that was beneficial in this instance. But it was not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding.”

What really broke the case? From the NYT:

Operation Cannonball, a [2005] bureaucratic reshuffling … placed more C.I.A. case officers on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan. With more agents in the field, the C.I.A. finally got the courier’s family name. With that, they turned to one of their greatest investigative tools — the National Security Agency began intercepting telephone calls and e-mail messages between the man’s family and anyone inside Pakistan. From there they got his full name. Last July, Pakistani agents working for the C.I.A. spotted him driving his vehicle near Peshawar.

Old-fashioned, painstaking, labor-intensive intelligence work. The American way. We never needed to stoop to bin Laden's standards to get bin Laden. We needed merely to follow our long-tested humane procedures.

(Photo: Newspapers left by visitors grace the fence overlooking the crash site of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on May 2, 2011 following the announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. Nearly 10 years after September 11, 2001, construction is underway to erect a formal memorial at the crash site.  By Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)