WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A central figure in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the debate over harsh interrogation methods was held in secret CIA detention, then sent back to Pakistan and now believed to have returned to the battlefield.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials said Hassan Ghul is an al Qaeda operative who at one point carried messages between Iraqi insurgents who established an al Qaeda affiliate after U.S. troops overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein.
Precise details of the mysterious Ghul's role in al Qaeda and the circumstances of his arrest are murky. But five U.S. officials familiar with Ghul's role in the epic hunt for bin Laden said he gave up what turned out to be vital information about an al Qaeda courier who eventually led U.S. intelligence to bin Laden's fortified hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
While detained in secret CIA prisons, the officials and declassified government documents said, Ghul was subjected to controversial "enhanced interrogation" techniques approved by the George W. Bush administration but abandoned amid accusations they constituted torture.
But did harsh interrogation practices really make Ghul give up the critical information which helped lead U.S. commandos to bin Laden? Some officials familiar with still-classified records of Ghul's sojourn as a CIA prisoner said the case is far from proven.
For months, investigators for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, have been poring through millions of pages of reports generated by the CIA's secret detention and interrogation program.
Earlier this week, Feinstein told Reuters about a CIA detainee who "did provide useful and accurate intelligence." But she added: "This was acquired before the CIA used their enhanced interrogation techniques against the detainee." Three U.S. officials said Feinstein was referring to Ghul.
While there is a paper trail documenting what Ghul said, when he said it, what techniques agency interrogators used on him and when they used them, this record remains classified.
Feinstein spoke after Sen. John McCain made a Senate floor speech insisting that "it was not torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads" that led to bin Laden.
In a letter to McCain obtained by Reuters, CIA director Leon Panetta was equivocal about the role enhanced interrogation played in producing intelligence on bin Laden.
"Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier's role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques," Panetta wrote. But he added: "Whether those techniques were the 'only timely and effective way' to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively."
But other U.S. officials familiar with the secret records say that even if Ghul did give up critical information about bin Laden's courier before being subjected to coercive interrogations, that is not proof they had no impact. One official said it is possible Ghul gave up vital information out of fear he was about to be subjected to such harsh tactics.
One key witness who might be able to resolve the debate is Hassan Ghul himself. But U.S. counterterrorism officials acknowledged that after the CIA released him into the custody of Pakistan, and Pakistani authorities set him free around 2007, he is thought to have rejoined militants and returned to the battlefield. His current whereabouts are unknown.
The publicly available paper trail on Ghul, and the CIA's dealings with him, is much thinner than that on other detainees also subjected to enhanced interrogations, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Reuters pieced together an outline of Ghul's story from CIA and Justice Department documents, as well as Guantanamo Bay detainee reports released by WikiLeaks.
According to U.S. officials, Ghul, a Pakistani national, was reported captured in Iraq in January 2004. The 9/11 Commission Report describes him as an al Qaeda facilitator.
The CIA subjected Ghul to enhanced interrogation techniques at an undisclosed location, according to a May 2005 memo from the Justice Department to senior CIA lawyer John A. Rizzo.
The memo was a response to a CIA request for legal guidance on use of enhanced interrogation practices. The Justice Department cited his interrogation as one example of the acceptable use of those techniques.
"The Interrogation team 'carefully analyzed Ghul's responsiveness to different areas of inquiry' during this time and noted that his resistance increased as questioning moved to his 'knowledge of operational terrorist activities,'" it said.
Ghul was subjected to "attention grasp, walling, facial grasp, facial slap, wall standing, stress positions and sleep deprivation" by his interrogation team, the document says. ("Walling" was a tactic in which detainees are slammed against a flexible wall).
But the document indicates those techniques did not appear to weaken Ghul enough to induce him to provide meaningful information. Interrogators then sought permission to use "dietary manipulation, nudity, water dousing and abdominal slap" to weaken him further. It is unclear from the memo if those additional interrogation methods were used.
Detainee files from Guantanamo Bay, made public by WikiLeaks, show Ghul crossed paths with, and later provided details about, several alleged al Qaeda militants.
An October 2008 report on detainee Maad al-Qahtani, a suspected "20th" hijacker candidate in the September 11 attacks, says al-Qahtani received "computer training" and instructions on how to send email from Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the courier who eventually led U.S. authorities to bin Laden's hideout, at a safe house in Karachi, Pakistan in July 2001.
The report adds, "Al-Qaida facilitator Hassan Ghul stated al-Kuwaiti ... traveled with (Osama bin Laden)."
After his capture, Ghul became a mysterious and peripatetic detainee. In December 2005, ABC News reported he had been held in a secret U.S. detention facility in Poland. He appears to have then been moved to a detention facility in Pakistan, according to testimony in a British criminal trial.
For years, the whereabouts and activities of Ghul were shrouded in such mystery that in 2006, Rep. John Carter and other members of Congress read a list of alleged terrorists considered out of commission into the Congressional Record. Among them, he said, was Ghul, who was "no longer a threat to the United States."
Today, however, U.S. officials admit this statement is probably no longer accurate, and that the witness who provided some of the most important clues to bin Laden's whereabouts is back on the front lines, fighting for his dead leader's cause.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Warren Strobel and Todd Eastham