WASHINGTON: A hotly disputed U.S. Senate report concluded that waterboarding and other controversial interrogation methods provided no key evidence in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to congressional aides and outside experts familiar with the investigation.
Ever since bin Laden’s death almost three years ago, in what was America’s biggest counterterrorism success, senior officials from the former Bush administration and CIA have cited the evidence trail leading to the Al-Qaeda mastermind’s compound in Pakistan as vindicating the “enhanced interrogation techniques” they authorized after 9/11.
The CIA continues to dispute the report’s findings.
But Democrat and some Republican senators have disputed that account. They described simulated drownings, sleep deprivation and other practices as cruel and ineffective. With the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on interrogations, renditions and detentions edging closer, they hope to make a persuasive case.
The report examines the treatment of several high-level terror detainees and the information they provided on bin Laden, congressional aides and outside experts said. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the confidential document.
The most high-profile detainee linked to the bin Laden investigation was Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, whom the CIA waterboarded 183 times. Mohammad, intelligence officials have said, confirmed after his 2003 capture that he knew an important Al-Qaeda courier with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
But the report concluded that such information was not critical to the hunt, according to the sources. Mohammad only discussed Kuwaiti months after being waterboarded, while he was under standard interrogation, they said. Nor did Mohammad acknowledge Kuwaiti’s significance or provide interrogators with the courier’s real name, they added.
The debate over the investigation is significant because, years later, the courier led U.S. intelligence to the sleepy Pakistani military town of Abbottabad. There, Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in a secret mission.
The CIA has also pointed to the value of information provided by senior Al-Qaeda operative Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was captured in 2005 and held at a secret prison.
U.S. officials have described how Libi fabricated a name for a trusted courier and denied knowing Kuwaiti. Libi, they said, was so adamant and unbelievable in his denial that the CIA took it as confirmation that he and Mohammad were protecting the courier.
But the report concludes that evidence gathered from Libi was not significant either, the sources said.
Essentially, they argued, Mohammad, Libi and others who were subjected to harsh treatment only confirmed what investigators already knew about the courier. When they denied the courier’s significance or provided misleading information, investigators would only have considered it significant if they had already presumed his importance.
The aides did not address information provided by another Al-Qaeda operative – Hasan Ghul, captured in Iraq in 2004. Intelligence officials have described Ghul as the breakthrough in the bin Laden investigation, after he identified Kuwaiti as a critical courier.
In a 2012 statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin acknowledged that an unidentified third detainee provided relevant information on the courier. But they said he did so the day before he was subjected to harsh CIA interrogation. “This information will be detailed in the intelligence committee’s report,” the senators said at the time.
It still took the CIA years to learn Kuwaiti’s real identity: Sheikh Abu Ahmed, a Pakistani man born in Kuwait. How the U.S. discovered Ahmed’s name is still unclear.
Without providing full details, aides said the Senate report illustrated the importance of the National Security Agency’s efforts overseas.
Intelligence officials have previously described how, when the CIA could not find bin Laden’s courier, NSA eavesdroppers found a lead in 2010, when Ahmed had a telephone conversation with someone monitored by U.S. intelligence, which was then able to follow Ahmed to bin Laden’s hideout.
Feinstein and other senators have spoken only vaguely of the contents of the classified review. But they have alluded to the divergence between their understanding of how the bin Laden operation came together and assertions of former CIA and Bush administration officials, who have defended interrogation techniques.
Feinstein will this week push for a summary of the intelligence committee’s review to be released, starting a declassification process that could take several months.