It wasn't torture that revealed Osama bin Laden's hiding place. Finding and killing the world's most-wanted terrorist took years of patient intelligence gathering and dogged detective work, plus a little luck.
Once again, it appears, we're supposed to be having a “debate” about torture — excuse me, I mean the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, that were authorized and practiced during the Bush administration. In fact, there's nothing debatable about torture. It's wrong, it's illegal, and there's no way to prove that the evidence it yields could not have been obtained through conventional methods.
President Obama ended these practices. Torture remained a stain on our national honor, but one that was beginning to fade — until details of the hunt for bin Laden began to emerge.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
According to widespread reports, the first important clue in the long chain leading to bin Laden's lair came in 2004 from a Pakistani-born detainee named Hassan Ghul, who was held in one of the CIA's secret “black site” prisons and subjected to coercive interrogation. Ghul was not waterboarded but may have been offered other items on the menu, including sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures and being placed in painful “stress positions” for hours at a time.
Ghul reportedly disclosed the nom de guerre of an al-Qaeda courier — Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — who appeared to have access to the terrorist organization's inner circle. The CIA was able to deduce that Ghul was referring to a man they had heard of before, a trusted aide who might know where bin Laden was hiding.
Two of the highest-ranking al-Qaeda leaders who were taken into U.S. custody — operations chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded repeatedly, and Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was not waterboarded but was subjected to other harsh interrogation techniques — pointedly declined to talk about al-Kuwaiti. Ghul, however, described al-Kuwaiti as a close associate and protege of both Mohammed and al-Libi. CIA analysts believed they might be on the right track.
It was, of course, just one of many tracks that might have led to bin Laden. This and other trails went hot and cold until last summer, when al-Kuwaiti made a phone call to someone being monitored by U.S. intelligence, who then watched his movements until he led them in August to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was cornered and killed.
Torture apologists are saying, “See, it worked.” But the truth is that there's no proof — and not even any legitimate evidence — that torture cracked the case.
It's true, apparently, that Ghul opened up to interrogators after being roughed up in some fashion. It's not clear that he was ever subjected to techniques that amount to torture, but let's assume he was. The question is whether such treatment was necessary to get Ghul to talk.
And there's no way to prove it was. Many experienced interrogators believe that torture is counterproductive — that it produces so much unreliable information that it's hard to tell what's true and what's not. These experts believe that noncoercive techniques are far more effective because when the subject does begin to talk, more truth than falsehood comes out.
Torture apologists often concoct hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenarios to validate coercion, including the infliction of pain. But this was a real-world scenario of slowly collecting names, dates, addresses, phone numbers and other disconnected bits of information, over a period of seven years, before finally being able to put them all together.
Would al-Kuwaiti's name and role have been extracted anyway, from Ghul or some other detainee, without coercive interrogation? If the two al-Qaeda higher-ups hadn't been subjected to harsh techniques, could they still have been led to cooperate with their questioners? Would they still have dissembled, tellingly, when asked about the courier who eventually led us to bin Laden?
I believe the odds are quite good that the CIA would have gotten onto al-Kuwaiti's trail somehow or other. But I can't be certain — just as those who defend torture and coercive interrogation can't be sure that these odious methods made the daring and successful raid possible.
What I do know is that torture is a violation of U.S. and international law — and a betrayal of everything this country stands for. The killing of bin Laden resulted from brilliant intelligence work, for which both the Bush and Obama administrations deserve our thanks and praise.
There's plenty of credit to go around — but not for torture. We should celebrate the victory of cherished American values, not their temporary abandonment.
Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group