Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Let’s be clear, though it will do nothing to dissuade right-wing mythmakers:
America’s greatest victory in the war on terror, the tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden, was the culmination of years of painstaking work and shoe-leather sleuthing by the CIA and military intelligence services.
The torturing of terror suspects, as best we know so far, got us little or nothing.
To argue otherwise — to claim that bin Laden’s killing was a vindication of the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” — is to put politics before facts and to minimize the hard and dangerous work of those who really brought bin Laden to justice.
The story of how bin Laden was located continues to unfold, and for security reasons, may never be revealed completely. As more details come out, perhaps it will be shown that information gained by torture did, in fact, play some role in bin Laden’s downfall. Until then, nobody can rule out the possibility.
But based on what we know so far, the hunt for bin Laden involved the use of just about every tool and technique of covert intelligence except torture — secret informants, satellite surveillance, the tailing of automobiles and the like. Defenders of waterboarding won’t find much to support their case.
CIA interrogators reportedly first were told in 2002 and 2003 about an al-Qaida courier by the code name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Whether the prisoner (or prisoners) who mentioned Kuwaiti had been subjected to waterboarding or other harsh interrogation methods, such as being slammed against walls, is unclear.
What is clear is that two other prisoners who then underwent some of the harshest treatment — including, in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 183 episodes of waterboarding — repeatedly misled their interrogators about the courier’s identity and importance, describing him as retired and of little significance. Mohammed was first asked about the courier after the waterboarding had ended, in the fall of 2003.
Ironically, it was because Mohammed and the second harshly interrogated prisoner tried to steer attention away from the courier that the CIA began to suspect that he might be somebody of importance.
That courier, of course, proved to be one of bin Laden’s most trusted links to the outside world. CIA operatives developed information over years about his true identity, and they trailed him for months until he led them to bin Laden’s door in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The time frame of this entire operation, from the first mention in 2002 of the courier’s code name until Sunday when bin Laden was killed, belies the argument that information gained from harsh interrogation techniques was critical to the operation’s success. The CIA suspended the use of harsh interrogation tactics in 2004 — more than seven years before we nailed bin Laden.
“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,” Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, told the New York Times. “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources.”
We look forward to an exhaustive government analysis of how bin Laden was caught. That might make for pretty good reading. And we look forward to the books by journalists sure to hit the shelves before long.
But we predict (a 6-inch putt) that the most thorough accounts simply will confirm what already looks clear: Excellent covert intelligence and 24 or so Navy SEALs — not un-American practices such as waterboarding — took out Osama bin Laden.