An Al Qaeda suspect who was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques at a secret CIA prison in early 2004 provided a clue, the nom de guerre of a mysterious courier, that ultimately proved crucial to finding Osama bin Laden, officials said Wednesday.
The CIA had approved use of sleep deprivation, slapping, nudity, water dousing and other coercive techniques at the now-closed CIA "black site" in Poland where the Pakistani-born detainee, Hassan Ghul, was held, according to a 2005 Justice Department memo, which cited Ghul by name. Two U.S. officials said Wednesday that some of those now-prohibited practices were directed at Ghul.
Ghul was not waterboarded, the notorious interrogation technique that simulates drowning and which critics describe as torture.
Two other CIA prisoners -- Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his successor, Abu Faraj Libbi -- gave their interrogators false information about the courier after they were waterboarded repeatedly, U.S. officials said.
Those lies also played a role in the decade-long manhunt, however. Over time, they were viewed as evidence by CIA analysts that Bin Laden's top deputies were trying to shield a figure who might be a link to the Al Qaeda leader's hide-out, according to U.S. officials briefed on the analysis. "The fact that they were covering it up suggested he was important," a U.S. official said.
In the end, intelligence gleaned from interviews with numerous detainees, high-tech eavesdropping and surveillance, and other investigative spadework provided insights on people close to Bin Laden. No one source or bit of intelligence was so decisive or crucial that it instantly solved the puzzle or ended the painstaking hunt for the world's most wanted terrorist, officials said. They stressed that none of the three most critical pieces of information -- the courier's name, the area of Pakistan in which he operated and the location of the compound in which Bin Laden was living -- came from detainees.
The nuances of that complex chain of events were often lost Wednesday amid a renewed public debate about the efficacy and morality of coercive interrogations that the CIA carried out under President George W. Bush.
"I think the issue has been mischaracterized on both sides," said a former CIA official who was involved in internal debate over the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques program at the time. "The people who say 'enhanced interrogation techniques' directly led to catching Bin Laden are wrong, and the people who say they had nothing to do with it are also wrong."
"The debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches, I think, is always going to be an open question," Panetta told NBC News on Tuesday.
Panetta did not say, and other administration officials adamantly denied, that coercive interrogation techniques directly led to finding Bin Laden.
"There is no way that information obtained by EITs was the decisive intelligence that led us directly to Bin Laden," said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, using the acronym for enhanced interrogation techniques.
"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 Bin Laden was likely to be living there," Vietor said. "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."
The Bush administration had abandoned waterboarding by 2004 and closed the CIA's web of secret prisons. All the detainees were transferred to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by 2007.
The Obama administration has forsworn those interrogation tactics. The CIA has sharply increased the use of armed Predator drones and military commando raids to kill terrorism suspects or has passed intelligence tips to other governments to capture or kill them.
Things were much different in January 2004, when Kurdish military forces in northern Iraq picked up Ghul, an Al Qaeda courier who was carrying a letter from Iraqi terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi to Bin Laden.
Ghul quickly disappeared into the CIA's network of secret prisons and became one of 28 detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, according to the Justice Department memo, which was released in 2009.
At first, his interrogators sought authorization to use "attention grasp, walling [slamming a detainee against a wall], facial hold, facial slap, wall standing, stress positions and sleep deprivation," according to the memo.
But the interrogators concluded that Ghul had steeled himself to resist physical pressure, the memo continues, so they switched to "more subtle interrogation measures designed to weaken [his] physical ability and mental desire to resist interrogation."
Those measures included "dietary manipulation, nudity, water dousing and abdominal slap." The team believed "those techniques would be especially helpful because he appeared to have a particular weakness for food and also seemed especially modest," the memo says.
A U.S. official who has been briefed on Ghul's role in providing Bin Laden information noted that "just because something was approved doesn't mean all of them were used," but he did not dispute that force was used.
"Ghul became relatively cooperative relatively quickly," the official said.
He provided crucial information about the courier, including a nickname, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the official said. Ghul and other detainees identified Kuwaiti as both a protege of Mohammed and a trusted assistant of Libbi.
A special prosecutor is investigating whether CIA officers exceeded their legal authority in using the techniques, and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee are nearing completion of a study of the interrogations after reviewing about 3 million documents, said Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Asked Tuesday about the information that led to Bin Laden, Feinstein said, "To the best of our knowledge, based on a look, none of it came as a result of harsh interrogation practices."
Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), who is a member of the Intelligence Committee, had a different interpretation.
"The initial thread that they started to pull on came after enhanced interrogation," he said. "From that you can take it to a debate on where you go with that. But I don't think there's any doubt that it was after enhanced interrogation that they got the initial thread."
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Richard Simon contributed to this report.
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The path to Osama bin Laden
January 2004: Hassan Ghul is caught by Kurdish forces in Iraq, carrying a message to Osama bin Laden from Iraqi terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.
2004: Ghul is taken to a secret CIA prison in Poland, where he is subjected to harsh interrogation techniques. He begins cooperating almost immediately. He and other CIA detainees provide information about a courier who was trusted by Bin Laden, including a nickname, Abu Ahmed Kuwaiti. Ghul and other detainees identify Kuwaiti both as a protege of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and a trusted assistant to Al Qaeda leader Abu Faraj Libbi.
2007: The CIA learns the real name of Kuwaiti, which officials have not disclosed.
2009: The CIA learns that Kuwaiti and his brother are operating in a region of Pakistan.
August 2010: The CIA tracks Kuwaiti to the compound in Abbottabad. Some reports say that happened after he spoke by phone with someone being monitored by U.S. intelligence.
May 2, 2011: A CIA-led team of Navy SEALs raids the compound, killing Kuwaiti, his brother, a woman and Bin Laden.
Source: Times staff