WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The possibility that U.S. spies located Osama bin Laden with help from detainees who’d been subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques seems certain to reopen the debate over practices that many have equated with torture, security experts said on Monday.
One of the key sources for initial information about an al Qaeda “courier” who led U.S. authorities to bin Laden’s Pakistani hide-out was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda operative said to have masterminded the September 11, 2001 attacks, a former U.S. national security official said.
KSM, as he was known to U.S. officials, was subjected to “waterboarding” 183 times, the U.S. government has acknowledged.
But it was not until later, after waterboarding was suspended because it and other harsh techniques became heatedly debated, that Mohammed told interrogators about the existence of a courier particularly close to bin Laden, a fragmentary tip that touched off a years-long manhunt that ended in bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. special forces on Sunday.
And at the time the information surfaced, the CIA had already abandoned some of its most controversial interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, in which water is poured over the face of an interrogation subject to simulate drowning, current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.
But 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.
“It will reignite a debate that hasn’t gone away about the morality and ethicacy of certain techniques,” said Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Waterboarding” and other physically-coercive interrogation techniques used on detained militants, including depriving them of sleep, making them pose in uncomfortable positions, and slamming them into walls, were authorized by President George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
The tactics were used on detainees held by the CIA at secret prisons outside the United States.
In 2004, the CIA suspended these techniques. Subsequent revelations about agency practices led to charges the United States had engaged in torture.
Veterans of the Bush administration were quick to claim credit for the torture-like techniques, which President Barack Obama banned soon after taking office in 2009.
Paul Wolfowitz, Bush’s deputy defense secretary, said the successful operation against bin Laden showed the value of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies.
“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.
But former U.S. officials told Reuters of a sequence of events that raises questions about whether the enhanced interrogation means played a significant role in bin Laden’s capture.
A former U.S. counter-terrorism official who was briefed on detainee information about bin Laden and his entourage said, for instance, the CIA stopped using harsh interrogation methods on KSM after 2003.
But the first key intelligence reports identifying the al Qaeda courier reached U.S. counter-terrorism officials in 2004, according to a former U.S. national security official with direct personal knowledge.
The official said that for three years after the CIA stopped subjecting him to coercive measures, KSM continued to talk extensively. It was during this period, the official said, that he believes KSM gave up information about the courier.
A second former U.S. official said that while he did not remember which detainee gave up the key tip about the courier, he confirmed that the information came in 2004, after the CIA had abandoned waterboarding but before it had completely stopped the use of physically stressful techniques.
This official, and two other current intelligence officials, said that in their view the main objective of the enhanced interrogation techniques was to break down resistance of detainees.
“You didn’t use the techniques if they started talking,” one of the officials said.
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.
Administration officials also said it was not until August 2010 that U.S. authorities learned the location of the fortified mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where U.S. special forces troops killed bin Laden during a commando raid on Sunday.
(This story was corrected in the fourth paragraph to say Mohammed divulged existence of courier rather than the name of the courier)
Additional reporting by David Alexander; editing by Warren Strobel and Philip Barbara