Sunday, May 22, 2011

Some Very Unoriginal Thoughts on Torture and Finding Bin Laden

I know it's late to be addressing the role of torture and finding Osama Bin Laden, but now that everyone else had put their two bits worth in, I might as well, too. In fact, it may have been better to delay and allow more information to come out.

Let me begin with a qualification. Every report that comes from insiders with an agenda to promote should be take with a grain of salt. I remember too well the story of John Kiriakou, the CIA agent who implied that he was personally involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubayda. By his account, Abu Zubayda gave only limited information in response to conventional interrogation, but after a single water boarding broke and gave extensive information. It later turned out that Kiriakou was not present but was merely repeatig what he had been told, that Abu Zubayda was treated far more brutally that he had been led to believe, and that his role was much exaggerated.

That being said, this account by top investigative reporter Michael Isikoff appears to be based on multiple sources, many of which were not inteded for public disclosure, and may be treated as the best account we currently have. He gives the following chronology:

Even before 9/11, US intelligence knew that Bin Laden communicated with the outside world by way of couriers. Identifying his couriers was therefore a high priority among US interrogators.

December, 2001, Mohammed al-Qahtani, believed to be the 20th hijacker for 9/11 is captured at the battle of Tora Bora and taken to Guantanamo. Once is identity is learned (by fingerprints) he is savagely tortured and reveals that he was trained in computers by "Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti," a high level courier working for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM). This is what is generally reported as giving the courier's nickname or nom de guerre. It also reveals an important bit of information since "al-Kuwaiti" means exactly what it sounds like -- he was from Kuwait. (That Abu Ahmed was an associkate of KSM, also a Kuwaiti, further established that they were different people). Abu Ahmed means father of Ahmed and may mean that he actually had a son by that name, or it may be purely symbolic. The torturers also learned that the Kuwaiti was at Tora Bora, but, of course, not what became of him after that.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Al-Qaeda association uncertain, arrested in Mauritania September 29, 2001, bounced around various countries and tortured, and ends up in Guantanamo, where he is also tortured. He reports that the Kuwaiti was killed at Tora Bora. (Note: Since Slahi was arrested in another country before the battle of Tora Bora, he could not possibly know what had become of the Kuwaiti).

March 1, 2003, KSM is captured in Pakistan. He is savagely tortured, including being waterboarded 183 times, in various black sites. Months later, when asked about the Kuwaiti, KSM acknowledges his existence, but denies that he was of any importance and says he is retired.

January 23, 2004, Hassan Ghul, whose role in Al-Qaeda and identity remain a mystery, is captured i Iraq and sent to a black site. After apparently brief torture, he confirmed the Kuwaiti's importance as a trusted messenger in the very top ranks of the Al-Qaeda hierarchy, but said the Kuwaiti had disappeared and he (Hassan Ghul) had no further contact with him. He also identified Abu Faraj al-Libi (the Libyan) as the new number three in Al-Qaeda. Hassan Ghul is no longer in US custody, and his fait remains unknown.

May 2, 2005, More detailed account of the phone callAb Faraj al-Libi is captured in Pakistan. Subjected to torture but not to waterboarding, the Libyan denied knowning the Kuwaiti and gave a made-up name for Bin Laden's courier. KSM also denied Hassan Ghul's account.

According to Isikoff, there were many mentions of the Kuwaiti by many detainees and many tidbits gleaned about him -- that he spoke Pushtun as well as Arabic (very useful when operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan), that he was good with computers, that he was a member of the inner circle, and that he was present at Tora Bora. Much of the information was false. But sorting through it, the CIA reached the conclusion that the mysterious Kuwaiti, true identity unknown, was probably Bin Laden's contact with the outside world. Hassan Ghul's statement that he had dropped out of sight was taken as evidence that he was hiding with Bin Laden. KSM and the Libyan's denials of his importance were taken as signs that they were hiding something.

Unknown date in 2007, the CIA determines the Kuwaiti's identity, though not his location. How they did that remains unknown, as does his original name. It should be noted that this took place during the Bush Administration. This means that at least some of the Bush officials touting the value of torture (though probably not all) know how this was determined. No one from either the Bush or Obama Administration is revealing how the Kuwaiti's real identity was determined. This probably means it involved some source that is still active.

Unknown date, 2009, courier's phone call to someone being monitor reveals his location. The CIA begins tracking him.

August, 2010, CIA tracks the Kuwaiti courier to a compound in Abbottobad. Its extreme security measures draw their attention. By September, they increasingly begin to suspect the compound houses Bin Laden.

March 14, 2011, although aerial surveillance has not actually spotted Bin Laden (apparently he never left the house, even within the compound), the CIA is confident enough to begin discussing options.

So what are we to conclude from all this? First, torture did not lead any Al-Qaeda operative to reveal the location of Bin Laden, the location of his trusted courier, or the true identity of the courier. Quite possibly, none of the captives knew this information. Neither is it clear that anyone under torture even revealed that the Kuwaiti was Bin Laden's contact with the outside world at all. Abu Faraj, the Libyan, had to have known this information, but gave a false name. It is unknown whether any of the others knew.

Second, torture apparently did yield many partial leads that the CIA was able to compile into a composite portrait of Bin Laden's trusted courier, who they determined to be the unknown Kuwaiti. This appears to have taken some time, and to have involved some blind alleys, such as the false name the Libyan gave.

Third, once the CIA had assembled its portrait, it turned to conventional intelligence gathering methods. In other words, it appears to have relied on torture, 2001 to at least 2005 and conventional intelligence gathering, 2007 to 2011. It is not clear what was going on 2005 to 2007.

To offer this as a defense of torture moves into some very disturbing territory. After all, all defenses of torture up until now have presupposed some degree of urgency. Ticking bombs give way to slow fuses, but the assumption has always been that there is some sort of a deadline and some sort of dire consequence if it is not met. Here there was no deadline. It took five years from when the CIA first learned of the Kuwaiti and three years from Hassan Ghul's confirmation of his importance to learn his identity, another two years to locate him, another year to trace him to the compound, and many months of surveillance to be comfortable (without ever positively confirming) that Bin Laden was there. And what would the consequences of not finding him have been? Simply the continuation of a status quo that we had learned to live with quite comfortably.

What proponents of torture are essentially arguing for is the mosaic theory of intelligence gathering. This amounts to the view that every scrap of intelligence, no matter how tiny, is worth while because it can be assembled into a larger picture. I have no general quarrel with this view. It is, as I understand it, how much of intelligence gathering works. But in the Bush Administration, the mosaic theory was used to justify indefinitely detaining and torturing anyone, innocent or guilty, high level or low level, for any scrap of information that might fit somewhere in the mosaic. My answer to anyone who would argue that torture was necessary because it filled in vital part of the mosaic would be that I would hold the mosaic theory to the same standard as the ticking bomb. We will never know if, in the absence of torture, we might have gleaned enough information from conventional interrogation, captured documents, and the like to assemble an adequate portrait of the mysterious Kuwaiti courier. To this day, we do not know how the CIA determined his identity.

The ticking bomb argument itself is dangerous -- how can we possibly know any situation is not a ticking bomb? But the mosaic theory of torture pushes the justification beyond any limits whatever. Or, as this Daily Kos poster puts it, "[I]f torture is acceptable to gain a sliver of information that MAY, given 6 years of hard conventional intelligence work down the line, be of value, then why have any rules at all on anything? After all, anything MIGHT work at some point in the future, including massacre of civilians."

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