No evidence that torture helped search

A ferocious debate over the use of torture techniques to interrogate terrorist suspects has broken out in America in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Some conservatives and members of the administration of former president George Bush have used the death of the terror chief to justify the use of waterboarding and other so-called “harsh interrogation” practices from 2002 to 2006. But critics and current officials have said there is little evidence they produced any single vital breakthrough that led to Bin Laden’s hideaway.

In a statement on its website Keep America Safe, which was set up by former vice president Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz Cheney, the group claimed such techniques had helped lead to Bin Laden’s death and obliquely criticised their cessation. “We must continue to provide our men and women in uniform and our intelligence professionals all the tools they need to fight and win this war,” it said.

John Yoo, the former justice department official in the Bush White House who helped provide the legal basis for torture techniques, said Bin Laden’s death justified such decisions. “Without the tough decisions taken by president Bush and his national security team the United States could not have found and killed Bin Laden,” he wrote on the blog of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Meanwhile, critics of torture immediately rebutted the claims, arguing that the worst of the mistreatment in the CIA-run system of “black prisons” had been stopped by 2006 and that it took another five years to find Bin Laden. They said the key breakthroughs in the hunt were down to old-fashioned surveillance and intelligence techniques, cyber-snooping or via standard interrogations.

Deputy national security adviser John Brennan was directly asked in an interview if waterboarding had helped catch Bin Laden. “Not to my knowledge,” he replied. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is head of the Senate intelligence committee, told Time that there was no such evidence. “I do not believe that there is any evidence that this came from waterboarding,” she said. “We’re still looking into it, but so far, no.”

Some human rights experts agreed, saying that there seemed little concrete evidence of a direct link. “There clearly was no smoking gun of a direct correlation between waterboarding and finding this suspect,” said Geneve Mantri, government relations director for terrorism and counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International USA, referring to the courier who eventually led investigators to Bin Laden’s hiding place.

Mantri said the hunt for Bin Laden had been long and involved many steps and no definitive breakthroughs had occurred during the Bush years, when torture techniques were used. “This operation was a slow and gradual process of piecing together fragments of information. If the previous administration had got that [definitive] information they clearly did not act on it,” he said.

That seems to be the picture so far as details of the long chase that led to Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound continue to emerge. The key development was the identification of Bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.

That process began in May 2005 on a street corner in the scruffy Pakistani city of Mardan, when local security services detained a poorly dressed 35-year-old Libyan Arab. Despite his nondescript appearance, this was Abu Farraj al-Libbi, al-Qaeda’s “director of external operations”.

The security men bundled him into a van. Some time later, after a period in one of the CIA’s secret “black prisons”, Libbi surfaced in Guantanamo Bay. A leaked report from the prison camp reveals Libbi gave his interrogators details of al-Qaeda’s system of couriers. That time spent under interrogation gives fuel to conservative defenders of harsh interrogations.

“We got beat up for it, but those efforts led to this great day,” Marty Martin, a retired CIA officer who, for years, led the hunt for Bin Laden, told the Associated Press. Other detainees who appear to have been useful included Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, who allegedly personally organised the 9/11 operation and who was detained in March 2003. Mohammed was waterboarded repeatedly. Yet Martin also admitted that the information that Mohammed gave, which helped identify Kuwaiti, happened under “normal investigation techniques”.

Further critical information also appears to have come in 2007 with the detention of Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, a senior militant close to Bin Laden, who was captured on his way to Iraq. Iraqi gave his questioners large quantities of information — the Guantanamo files are littered with references to his testimony — but was captured long after the worst abuses in the secret CIA-run prisons had been stopped. His leads on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti — who died with his brother in the Abbottabad raid at the weekend — were also fed to the investigators.

Indeed, the raw intelligence from the detainees was only a starting point for a huge, wide-ranging investigation from many sources. There was still much work to be done to convert it into useful information.

As more details emerge of how Kuwaiti was found and traced, it seems to have been old-fashioned stakeouts combined with the most powerful contemporary communications intercept technology that tracked down the crucial courier.

Agents on the ground chased down leads generated by the collection of email addresses and phone numbers linked to the target. According to a report this week Kuwaiti made a phone call last year that gave away his location. He was subsequently spotted in Peshawar by local agents working for the CIA who noted the licence plate number of his car.

Surveillance was intensified. The courier eventually led the CIA to the house in Abbotabad, which was then watched, eventually leading to the raid at the weekend. — Guardian News & Media 2011

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Jason Burke
Jason Burke works from in transit, probably. Africa Correspondent of The Guardian, author of books, 20 years reporting Middle East, South Asia, Europe, all over really. Overfond of commas. Dad. Jason Burke has over 38885 followers on Twitter.

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