Rethinking Guantanamo After Detainee Info Led to Bin Laden

Worldwide, the "harsh interrogation" debate is being revisited

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Suppose we're classifying the controversial Bush administration "harsh interrogation" practices at Guantanamo as "torture." Now: what if that torture led to the U.S. finding Osama bin Laden and taking him out of the picture forever? Given the news that the crucial information on bin Laden's courier--the man who unwittingly led the U.S. to bin Laden's compound--came from Guantanamo Bay detainees, commentators at home and abroad are revisiting the Guantanamo debate. Does the extra-legal detention now look like a good idea? How about the waterboarding? Here are the details of the case, and how they are being used to support arguments in both directions.

The Tricky Details: What Happened

Already, there are big discrepancies in reports of how the U.S. identified bin Laden's courier. Which report you read may make a big difference in whether your feelings about Guantanamo interrogation have shifted by the end of the article. The New York Times says merely that it was post-2002 and that it involved matching information from detainees in secret prisons with the denials of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and others (who were in Guantanamo):

It wasn't until after 2002, when the agency began rounding up Qaeda operatives — and subjecting them to hours of brutal interrogation sessions in secret overseas prisons — that they finally began filling in the gaps about the foot soldiers, couriers and money men Bin Laden relied on.

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.

Meanwhile, The Telegraph's Tim Ross said it was KSM, not others, who let the courier's identity slip, while "a second source--also an al-Qaeda 'leader' held at Guantanamo Bay--then confirmed the courier's identity." This second source, if matched up to WikiLeaks documents, looks to be Abu Faraj al-Libi, which The Times also mentions. Both KSM and al-Libi were, Ross points out, "subjected to harsh techniques during their interrogations in CIA prisons."

But Reuters's Mark Hosenball includes details that tell a different story, hearing from multiple "current and former U.S. officials" that the crucial courier information only came long after harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding had been abandoned. It wasn't just post-2002 that this happened, but post-2004, i.e. after the CIA had "suspended" the harsh techniques, according to Hosenball. "The first key intelligence reports identifying the al Qaeda courier reached U.S. counter-terrorism officials in 2004," writes Hosenball, citing "a former U.S. national security official with direct personal knowledge."

The Case for Guantanamo Interrogation

Even with Reuters's account of the chronology, Hosenball writes that "the possibility that detainees who at some point were subjected to physical coercion later gave up information leading to bin Laden's discovery is sparking discussion among intelligence experts as to whether he could have been found without them." Here's the quote he gets:

"I think it ... rested heavily on some of those controversial policies," Wolfowitz told reporters in a phone briefing by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he's a visiting scholar.

"This would not have been possible if we were releasing terrorists willy-nilly and not keeping them for the information they had, some of which often may not look that important, like the pseudonym of a driver, until it turns out that he's really a critical person," Wolfowitz said.

Given the previous harsh criticism over Guantanamo from Europe, let's take a look at Thomas Schmid's revision in an op-ed for German newspaper Die Welt, covered yesterday by the Wire: "If it is true that crucial information on the whereabouts of the target came from the Guantanamo detainees, this would throw a new light on America's handling of terrorism suspects: as problematic as the stockpiling and choosing of detainees is--there were good reasons to set up Guantanamo and not to close it prematurely."

The Case Against Guantanamo Interrogation

Tim Ross points out in The Telegraph that "Amnesty International has already warned that the killing of bin Laden must not be used as evidence that torture is 'justifiable'."

Then there's the big issue of chronology. If the detainees gave up the key info after waterboarding had already been banned, is that really an argument for waterboarding? One of Hosenball's anonymous sources in the Reuters article also said that, in fact, "for three years after the CIA stopped subjecting him to coercive measures, KSM continued to talk extensively."

Summing It Up

Given Hosenball's notes, separated by a few paragraphs in his piece, that "veterans of the Bush administration [have been] quick to claim credit for the torture-like techniques," while "Obama Administration officials confirmed the sequence of events--U.S. intelligence did not learn the identity of the courier until after the CIA interrogation program was terminated," it seems likely there could be some spin even in information from anonymous sources; the obvious issue with anonymous sources, for the reader, is that you don't know who they are or what agenda they might have. That said, it certainly looks like both sides face hurdles in maintaining their positions: waterboarding supporters have to deal with the fact that the crucial information leading to bin Laden's location came after the waterboarding stopped. Anti-Guantanamo activists have to deal with the fact that such quality information came from illegal detention centers, including Guantanamo.*

*Edited for clarity. This post also originally misstated the year that Obama took office.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.