Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee expect to release findings this summer from an 18-month investigation into the CIA's interrogation of terrorism suspects, a review that could provide some clarity on whether harsh techniques — or even torture — played a role in helping the CIA find Osama bin Laden.
Since Bin Laden's death, there has been a dizzying back-and-forth between current and former U.S. officials — some with direct knowledge, some without — making claims they can neither prove nor disprove since classified information is involved.
Senate staffers, by contrast, have examined about 5 million pages of email, cables and other classified materials that probably will shed light on which detainees said what and under what conditions.
Separately, U.S. officials have been granted access to Bin Laden's three widows, who were detained by Pakistani security forces after Navy SEALs killed the Al Qaeda leader on May 2 and left them handcuffed at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to say who was questioning the women or whether they were cooperating. Another official said it was unimaginable that anyone other than CIA officers were conducting the interviews.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA carried out interrogations at a network of now-closed secret overseas prisons.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the intelligence committee, said Thursday that the detainee who gave the CIA its best understanding of the courier who ultimately led to Bin Laden — identified by U.S. officials as Hassan Ghul — did so before he was subjected to unspecified harsh interrogation techniques at a secret CIA prison in Poland.
Feinstein knows this, she explained, because her staff has examined records documenting the CIA interrogations — records that few others have been able to examine.
Her assertion contradicts several George W. Bush administration officials who have suggested that Ghul gave help only after rough treatment. Those claims have fueled the belief by some that "enhanced interrogation techniques," which President Obama banned after he took office, were instrumental in finding Bin Laden.
Moreover, a U.S. official disclosed that Ghul was not named in a 2005 Justice Department memo that approved use of sleep deprivation, slapping, nudity and water dousing, as The Times reported last week. The memo referred to a detainee named Janat Gul, the official said, and no one suggests he provided information about Bin Laden's courier.
Feinstein's comments came hours after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued on the Senate floor that torture did not lead to Bin Laden. McCain said that CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told him that the first mention of the courier's nom de guerre, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, came from a detainee who was held and interrogated by another country with no U.S. involvement.
McCain lashed out at former Bush administration officials, including former Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey, who have asserted that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-professed architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, provided details on the courier.
Mohammed was one of three Al Qaeda detainees who was waterboarded, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning. The notion that he was important to finding Bin Laden is false, McCain said, citing information he got from Panetta.
Mukasey countered hours later with a written statement in which he contended that Mohammed's lies during interrogation had provided useful clues. Other former officials have argued that Mohammed would not have talked at all were it not for waterboarding.
Panetta has been silent on whether Mohammed was helpful. But the CIA chief said some details came from detainees who were given brutal interrogations. He has not publicly disclosed which details, which detainees or which techniques were involved.
Feinstein's investigation has concluded that the CIA failed to obtain intelligence through waterboarding and other techniques that could not have been gotten from standard interrogations, said a source familiar with it. Republican congressional aides said that they never doubted that Democrats would reach that conclusion.
Republicans lawmakers on the committee withdrew from the inquiry shortly after it began. They asserted that the review should not be undertaken while a Justice Department criminal investigation was still pending, said an official familiar with their decision.
CIA officers involved in the program have refused to talk to the committee for fear their testimony could harm them in the criminal inquiry, the official said.