Bush administration officials claim vindication of their policy

Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?

As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Osama was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication of their policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding.

Among them was John Yoo, a former Justice Department official who wrote secret legal memorandums justifying brutal interrogations.

“President Obama can take credit, rightfully, for the success today,” Mr. Yoo wrote on Monday in National Review, “but he owes it to the tough decisions taken by the Bush administration.”

But a closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Osama's trusted courier and exposing his hideout. One detenu who apparently was subjected to some tough treatment provided a crucial description of the courier, according to current and former officials briefed on the interrogations. But two prisoners who underwent some of the harshest treatment including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times repeatedly misled their interrogators about the courier's identity.

The discussion of what led to Osama's demise has revived a national debate about torture that raged during the Bush years. The former President and many conservatives argued for years that force was necessary to persuade al-Qaeda operatives to talk.

Human rights advocates, and President Barack Obama as he campaigned for office, said the tactics were torture, betraying American principles for little or nothing of value.

Glenn L. Carle, a retired CIA officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detenu in 2002, said in a phone interview on Tuesday, that coercive techniques “didn't provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.” He said that while some of his colleagues defended the measures, “everyone was deeply concerned and most felt it was un-American and did not work.”

Years of effort

Obama administration officials, intent on celebrating Monday's successful raid, have tried to avoid reigniting a partisan battle over torture.

“The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Osama was likely to be living there.”

From the moment the first al-Qaeda suspects were captured, interrogators at both the military's prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the CIA's secret prisons were focused on identifying al-Qaeda members who served as couriers.

“We knew that it was likely that if we were ever to get Osama bin Laden, it would be because we somehow came upon somebody closely associated with him that he trusted,” said Charles D. Stimson, the top Pentagon official on detenu affairs from 2004 to 2007.

Harrowing measures

After the capture in March 2003 of Mohammed, the chief planner of the September 11, 2001, attacks, he was subjected to the most harrowing set of the so-called enhanced measures, which included slamming prisoners into walls, shackling them in stress positions and keeping them awake for as long as 180 hours. Like two other prisoners, he was subjected to waterboarding. — New York Times News Service