None of the crucial information that led the Central Intelligence Agency down the trail to Osama bin Laden came from coercive interrogation techniques, Sen. John McCain said on the Senate floor Thursday morning, contradicting the accounts of current and former U.S. officials.
McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has always opposed the U.S. use of waterboarding and other abusive techniques employed after the 9/11 attacks—banned by President Obama when he took office--to elicit information from detainees.
CIA Director Leon Panetta has said that some of the information helpful in tracking down the courier who was sheltering Bin Laden came from detainees in CIA custody who had been subject to the techniques. Some former senior officials, including former Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey and Jose Rodriguez, a former top CIA official, have said flatly that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, provided the name of the courier. U.S. officials have disputed that, and McCain called it “false.”
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he asked Panetta “for the facts. And I received the following information:
“The trail to Bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. We did not first learn from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed the real name of Bin Laden’s courier, or his alias, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti – the man who ultimately enabled us to find Bin Laden. The first mention of the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, as well as a description of him as an important member of Al Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country.”
McCain added: “We did not learn Abu Ahmed’s real name or alias as a result of waterboarding or any ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ used on a detainee in U.S. custody. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts, or an accurate description of his role in Al Qaeda.”
The senator continued: “In fact, not only did the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on Bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed; it actually produced false and misleading information. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married, and ceased his role as an Al Qaeda facilitator – which was not true, as we now know. All we learned about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti through the use of waterboarding and other ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the confirmation of the already known fact that the courier existed and used an alias.
The staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee told McCain, the senator said, “that, in fact, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee – information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in Al Qaeda and his true relationship to Osama bin Laden – was obtained through standard, noncoercive means, not through any ‘enhanced interrogation technique.’
“In short, it was not torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden.”
What McCain did not mention, though, is that in his letter to the senator, Panetta reiterated his assertion that some information about the courier came from detainees who were subject to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a U.S. official said. Panetta said, as he has told interviewers, that it’s an open question whether the information could have been gleaned through standard questioning.
“Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques,” Panetta wrote. “Whether those techniques were the ‘only timely and effective way’ to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively.”