Osama bin Laden’s death was at first one of the rare political occasions that united liberals and conservatives. Today, however conservative writers began using the mission’s success as evidence for the effectiveness of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques (aka torture) that were implemented under the Bush administration.
As President Obama said during his address late last night, planning for the assault began in August when he was briefed on preliminary evidence that the CIA had possibly pinpointed bin Laden’s hideout location. But according to the reports trickling out today, the initial intelligence appears to have originated from detainees held in U.S. custody, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who provided the nom de guerre of the courier who served as bin Laden’s voice to the outside world. The AP reports that the information was gleaned from KSM while he was in secret overseas prisons, where he was waterboarded 183 times.
The National Review has spent today pushing the argument that bin Laden’s capture proves the necessity for the prison at Guantanimo Bay and for torture as an interrogation tool. Shannen Coffin wrote:
An interesting aspect of this, however, is the admission by administration officials that President Bush’s ”secret CIA prisons” and enhanced interrogation techniques played a role in developing the intelligence that led to the kill. President Obama was a most vocal critic of the CIA’s interrogation programs and very publicly closed the overseas CIA prisons in one of his first acts as president. For those who refused to believe that effective intelligence could be gathered from such techniques, it would seem that effectiveness has been proved in spades here. GTMO naysayers can still debate the legality and morality of enhanced interrogation techniques (even though this didn’t happen at GTMO, by the way), but don’t they have to admit that the techniques were effective in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice? Perhaps the argument will linger that we would have gotten this information through other methods, but the fact is that, at least in the reported case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, enhanced methods of interrogation succeeded where other methods had failed.
Her colleague Andrew McCarthy furthered the argument that bin Laden’s death was a direct refutation of Obama’s policies, writing that “the operation cannot but underscore the mind-bending inconsistencies in Obama’s counterterrorism -- gold-plated due process for some 9/11 terrorists but assassination for others; the haste to close Gitmo even as it continues to serve valuable security purposes; the paralysis of interrogation policies that . . . were key to obtaining intelligence that not only thwarts attacks but enabled us to find bin Laden.”
That focus misses the entirety of the efforts undertaken by the CIA that lead directly to bin Laden’s death. The organization may have gained the first kernel of information from interrogations, but it was old school spy work (with assistance from high tech equipment) that led to the strike on bin Laden’s compound.
Moreover, emphasizing this one piece of information possibly gained from KSM’s torture misses the greater negative implications that resulted from Bush’s interrogation policies. In a series of articles for The New Yorker and in her book The Dark Side, Jane Mayer detailed the counterproductive nature of enhanced interrogation. Even beyond the legal and moral questions surrounding the use of waterboarding, Mayer reported that the sessions proved largely harmful for the CIA’s intelligence gathering efforts. KSM had been willing to cooperate with the CIA on a host of questions, but as he was subjected to more and more torture, he confessed to so many possible plots that the CIA could no longer trust the information he provided.
“Ultimately, however, Mohammed claimed responsibility for so many crimes that his testimony became to seem inherently dubious. In addition to confessing to the [Daniel] Pearl murder, he said that he had hatched plans to assassinate President Clinton, President Carter, and Pope John Paul II. Bruce Riedel, who was a C.I.A. analyst for twenty-nine years, and who now works at the Brookings Institution, said, “It’s difficult to give credence to any particular area of this large a charge sheet that he confessed to, considering the situation he found himself in. K.S.M. has no prospect of ever seeing freedom again, so his only gratification in life is to portray himself as the James Bond of jihadism.”