National Security Network

How We Got Him

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Report 4 May 2011

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security bin Laden Guantanamo Guantanamo Bay Osama bin Laden Torture


The story we know so far of Osama bin Laden's tracking and killing reflects success in intelligence reform, interagency coordination and old-fashioned intelligence-gathering.  Well-informed sources from Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to former Guantanamo interrogators to the White House have insisted that information gleaned from "advanced interrogation techniques" - or torture - played little or no role, or was actually counter-productive by generating false leads. National security and military leaders have long argued that torture is not only an ineffective tool for extracting information, but it is also harmful overall to counterterrorism efforts. In fact, experts have made clear in recent days that the information that led to bin Laden's whereabouts was the result of years of hard work and deep investigation. As Graham said, "I do not believe this is a time to celebrate waterboarding, I believe this is a time to celebrate hard work."                                            

Intelligence reform, boots on the ground, listening devices and old-fashioned intelligence work:  waterboarding was no shortcut to bin Laden. NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said yesterday that, "There is no way that information obtained by [enhanced interrogation techniques] was the decisive intelligence that led us directly to bin Laden. It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that bin Laden was likely to be living there."

The New York Times reports, "Operation Cannonball, a bureaucratic reshuffling that 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. When, after weeks of surveillance, he drove to the sprawling compound in Abbottabad, American intelligence operatives felt they were onto something big, perhaps even Bin Laden himself."

Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and expert on al Qaeda and bin Laden writes that, "After President Obama took office, he and the new Central Intelligence Agency director, Leon Panetta, reorganized the team of analysts devoted to finding Osama bin Laden. The team worked out of ground-floor offices at the Langley headquarters... analytical units, at Central Command, in Tampa, and at the International Security Assistance Force, in Kabul, sorted battlefield and all-source intelligence, designated subjects for additional collection, and conducted pattern analysis of relationships among terrorists, couriers, and raw data collected in the field... Overseas, C.I.A. officers in the Directorate of Operations and the Special Activities Division-intelligence officers who ran sources and collected information, as well as armed paramilitaries-carried out the search for informants from bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Units from the military's Joint Special Operations Command, which includes the Navy Seals, Delta, and other specialized groups, joined in. Often, Special Operations and the C.I.A. worked in blended task-force teams deployed around Afghanistan, and, more problematically, as the Raymond Davis case indicated, around Pakistan." [Tommy Vietor, 5/3/11. NY Times, 5/2/11. Steve Coll, 5/2/11]

Interrogators: Torture is ineffective at extracting information.

Mark Fallon, a former interrogator and special agent in charge of the criminal investigation task force at Guantanamo Bay: "I was privy to the information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at the time. I'm not aware of any information or intelligence that was a product from water boarding. If we look at the facts we know of the case right now where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was a mentor, this was a protégé of him. Had the information come out during the water boarding, we would have captured the courier sooner...  I've seen no information that the infliction of pain equates to the elicitation of accurate information... it's a shame to diminish the incredible work that went on through the intelligence community with analysts and case officers that led to bin Laden's capture. So let's not diminish that accomplishment because that's a significant event in our history. To try to cheapen it by saying that some event in water boarding years ago led to this is a disservice to our service members." [Mark Fallon via MSNBC, 5/3/11]

Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym of the Air Force interrogator who located Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, said yesterday that, "When you use coercive techniques, which includes waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques, you get the bare minimum amount of information out of a detainee. And that bare minimum of information is going to lack the details that you need to execute a mission to take out a target. The type of information you need isn't a pseudonym or a nickname of a courier. It's ‘who is that courier,' ‘how do we find him' and ‘how do we know when he's meeting with our target' - in this case bin Laden. Take this example of what took us seven years to go from the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to this name and bin Laden and compare that to how we found Zarqawi. We convinced somebody to cooperate without using torture, someone very similar to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who was dedicated to al Qaeda, and when he did cooperate he provided not only the name of the person that met with Zarqawi but exactly how we would know when he would go to meet with him, and allowed us to go from capture of that person, from cooperation to the death of Zarqawi in about six weeks." [Matthew Alexander, 5/4/11]

Glenn L. Carle, a retired C.I.A. officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002, told the New York Times that coercive techniques "didn't provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information." [Glenn Carle via NY Times, 5/3/11]

Former counterterrorism official: Isikoff's investigation included an interview with a former counterterrorism official who stated: "‘They waterboarded KSM (Khaled Sheikh Mohammed) 183 times and he still didn't give the guy up,' said one former U.S. counterterrorism official who asked not to be identified. ‘Come on. And you want to tell me that enhanced interrogation techniques worked?' It is possible that neither Qahtani nor Mohammed knew the true identify of bin Laden's trusted courier, although that would appear to contradict the U.S. official's description of him as Mohammed's ‘protégé.'" [Michael Isikoff, 5/2/11]

National security experts, military officials, interrogators agree Guantanamo and torture hurt our national security goals.

GITMO and torture impede on the ground cooperation . NSN Executive Director Heather Hurlburt writes that "any tips from Guantánamo had to be supplemented by a flood of on-the-ground work, and presumably more interrogations, and more talk with friendly sources, and more purchased intel-much of which, apparently, came in the last eight months. Not coincidentally, we have seen considerable improvement in cooperation with Pakistani and Western intelligence agencies in the post-Bush years, as confidence in U.S. interrogation practices, and thus in the political safety of admitting cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies, improved. I'm not arguing that everything is perfect now, just that no one has been sent to Guantánamo lately and global perceptions have improved, the results of which have been increased ability to operate on the ground and receive shared information." [Heather Hurlburt, 5/3/11]

Negative consequences for America when we torture. When asked if he wished that the use of torture or "enhanced interrogation" was available as a tool during interrogations, General Petraeus answered: "I have always been on the record, in fact, since 2003, with the concept of living our values.  And I think that whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside... Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradables.  They don't go away.  The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick in the Central Command area of responsibility." [David Petraeus, Meet the Press, 2/21/10]

The use of torture plays into al Qaeda's hands. Interrogator Matthew Alexander notes: "One of al-Qaeda's goals is to prove that America does not live up to its principles. They assert that we are a nation of hypocrites. By engaging in torture and abuse, we are playing into their hands. This war has two fronts - protecting our security by thwarting terrorist attacks and preserving American principles. We cannot become our enemy in seeking to defeat him." [Matthew Alexander, 4/23/09]

Bipartisan leaders rebuff attempts to over-simplify, politicize. Instead of focusing on giving credit to the military and intelligence professionals whose hard work led to the death of bin Laden, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said, "We obtained that information through waterboarding. So for those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information which directly led us to bin Laden." Former Bush administration official John Yoo, who wrote the legal opinions authorizing torture, writes in the Wall Street Journal today, "The United States located al Qaeda's leader by learning the identity of a trusted courier from the tough interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, and his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi."

Bipartisan leaders reject this view. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said yesterday, "This idea we caught bin Laden because of waterboarding I think is a misstatement... This whole concept of how we caught bin Laden is a lot of work over time by different people and putting the puzzle together. I do not believe this is a time to celebrate waterboarding, I believe this is a time to celebrate hard work." The San Francisco Chronicle reports that "[Rep. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee] said torture did not elicit the information that ultimately led to bin Laden. Instead, she attributed the operation's success to painstaking work by a rejuvenated intelligence apparatus that has moved beyond its failures during the Iraq war. ‘It was a masterful job of intelligence,' Feinstein said." [Peter King, 5/2/11. John Yoo, 5/4/11. SF Chronicle, 5/4/11. Lindsey Graham, via TPM, 5/3/11]

What We're Reading

An explosion rocked Benghazi's main square, prompting witnesses to say it was the work of the country's longtime strongman, Muammar Qaddafi.

The two largest Palestinian factions -- the West Bank-based Fatah and the Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza -- formally adopted a reconciliation agreement in Cairo.

Amnesty International has published satellite images of what it says are North Korea's political prison camps, saying they appear to be growing in size.

Kazakhstan has ratified an agreement with the United States to allow the air transit of supplies and personnel destined for operations in Afghanistan.

Portugal's caretaker prime minister Jose Socrates says he has reached agreement on a bail-out from the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

The United States and Romania announced an agreement on the location for basing American antimissile interceptors in Romania as part of a program designed to link Washington and its NATO allies against an Iranian threat.

Some 300 lawyers gathered in Uganda's capital to protest the arrest of the country's top opposition leader and a crackdown on demonstrations.

The trial of two Rwandan Hutu leaders accused of masterminding atrocities in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has started in Germany.

An appeals court in Honduras has dropped all corruption charges against former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted and forced into exile in June 2009.

Commentary of the Day

Ahed al Hendi says that in standing against President Assad's security forces, Syria's demonstrators face a secretive, complex and ruthless apparatus.

Shabbir Cheema looks at the likely impacts of bin Laden's death on U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Mark Feygin writes that Russian President Dimitri Medvedev's political role model has begun to shift away from Putin and toward U.S. President Barack Obama.

Heather Hurlburt examines what bin Laden's death means for U.S. national security in the long term.