The location and elimination of Osama bin Laden was among the greatest achievements of the American intelligence community in the War on Terror — and “enhanced interrogation” had nothing do with it, according to the Senate Democrats’ “torture” report, released earlier this week. According to the much-touted study, “the vast majority of the documents, statements, and testimony highlighting information [that enabled the bin Laden operation] from the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, or from CIA detainees more generally, was inaccurate and incongruent with CIA records.” The minority report released by six Senate Intelligence Committee Republicans claims differently.
The majority report documents that the CIA had information about Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, the courier whose identification and tracking made possible the bin Laden raid, as early as 2001, and that over the next year they obtained a telephone number and e-mail address believed to be associated with him, details about his age, physical appearance, and family, and information that he was closely tied to bin Laden. According to the majority report, all of this information preceded the use of enhanced interrogation on any CIA detainees.
The CIA, meanwhile, has insisted on the importance of enhanced-interrogation techniques. In a May 2011 radio interview, former CIA director Michael Hayden said, “What we got, the original lead information — and frankly it was incomplete identity information on the couriers — began with information from CIA detainees at the black sites.” Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee around the same time, CIA director Leon Panetta stated that “the tipoff on the couriers came from those [detainee] interviews,” a claim he reiterated two years later on CNN’s State of the Union. Other CIA officials testified similarly.
How is one to assess these claims?
Two methodological problems that plague the majority report are likely crucial here. First, the report relies entirely on documentation, which even the report admits is incomplete. Not a single person involved in the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program — from top officials to interrogators — was interviewed.
Second, the majority report offers no evidence to rebut a particularly damning accusation leveled by the minority: “the Study’s use of hindsight to criticize the CIA for not recognizing the significance of previously collected, but not fully-understood intelligence information.”
According to the minority report, the information about al-Kuwaiti acquired in 2002 “sat unnoticed in a CIA database for five years” because “that intelligence was insufficient to distinguish Abu Ahmad from many other Bin Ladin associates until additional information from detainees put it into context and allowed us to better understand his true role and potential in the hunt for Bin Ladin.” So the CIA wrote in its June 2013 response to the majority report.
In 2012, the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, in its Lessons from the Hunt for Usama Bin Ladin, called information about al-Kuwaiti “an unnoticed needle in the haystack on an unending plain of haystacks.” It was only in 2007 that earlier information acquired significance, “after detainee reporting provided enough information about the courier that a search of old records illuminated key information.” One CIA analyst had long deemed the early information “meaningless” — until detainee intelligence indicated that it was, in fact, quite meaningful.
The corroborative importance of detainee information is suggested by the case of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who, after being waterboarded, provided false information about al-Kuwaiti (as did Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was subjected to other enhanced-interrogation techniques). “Ironically,” the CIA concluded in 2012, “the falsity of the information was itself important in establishing Abu Ahmad’s significance.”
The majority report, eager to highlight the credible information that the CIA had in its database before any detainees were subjected to enhanced interrogation, ignores the messy reality that no intelligence is self-evidently significant. The intelligence that led to the bin Laden raid was, as Leon Panetta said, a “puzzle,” which required time and a great deal of trial and error to assemble. The majority report condemns the intelligence community for failing to see what it did not know to look for, while simultaneously concluding that the detainee intelligence that reportedly focused its search was irrelevant.
Senate Democrats separated from the necessary context those facts that favored their narrative. To determine what intelligence was actually crucial to finding Osama bin Laden, we will need a fact-finding mission that collects, and puts in context, all the facts.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.