A group of former US military interrogators are pushing back against the notion that Bush administration “enhanced interrogation techniques” – which many consider to be torture – led to the intelligence that helped US officials locate Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Some US military intelligence officials also lament that bin Laden was not taken alive – and privately wonder whether concerns about the political “headaches” involved in trying detainees may have led the Obama administration to favor killing rather than capturing the architect of 9/11.
The opportunity to glean valuable intelligence from the leader of a powerful terrorist organization was lost, says retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, a military intelligence specialist who interrogated generals under the command of Saddam Hussein and evaluated US detention operations at Guantánamo.
It is a misconception that ideologues don’t talk, he says. “The opinion that, ‘Oh, he’s such a fanatic, he won’t tell us anything' – that’s uninformed blathering by people who don’t understand the business,” Herrington adds. “The experience with those who worked with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of the other most senior terrorists is that they are narcissists and that they do want to talk – and talk and talk.”
The key, Herrington says, is to “channel those long talking sessions where they begin to – inadvertently at first – reveal things that are useful. All the while he’s talking, he’s telling us things that he doesn’t think are important, but they are.”
That requires building relationships – a process that is hampered, not helped, by practices such as “slapping someone in the face and stripping them naked,” he adds.
A handful of former intelligence officials concurs, releasing a statement Wednesday countering recent Bush administration officials claiming credit for the intelligence gains that led to bin Laden’s death.
“We are concerned about the suggestion by some that the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques led US forces to Osama bin Laden’s compound,” reads the statement, signed by four former military and FBI interrogators, including Herrington.
Among other recent assertions, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Fox News that the Obama administration would not have learned critical information without using harsh measures. “Anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques, let’s be blunt – waterboarding – did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn’t facing the truth,” he said.
One hotly debated piece of information was the alias of the courier – Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti – that intelligence officials gained from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was subjected to waterboarding 183 times.
The interrogators assert that Mr. Mohammed and others “did not divulge the nom de guerre of a courier during torture, but rather several months later, when they were questioned by interrogators who did not use abusive techniques.”
“This is not surprising,” they wrote in the open letter posted on the Human Rights First website. “We know from experience that it is very difficult to elicit information from a detainee who has been abused. The abuse often only strengthens their resolve and makes it that much harder for an interrogator to find a way to elicit useful information.”
Eliciting that information involves decency, Herrington says. “The fact that you may hate this person, viscerally, doesn’t matter. You use the talents you have.”
Herrington says he often began the interrogation relationship by bringing detainees information valuable to them. “I would say, ‘I know you’re worried about your family, and this morning I’m bringing you information about your wife and kids.’ ”
He might have framed his questions to bin Laden, Herrington says, in a way that encouraged him to clear up misunderstandings. “I’d say, ‘Even though we’re on different sides of this thing, I can’t help but wonder what it is that we didn’t understand about you or your cause or Islam that got you to the point where you would do this – educate me.’ ”
Interrogators, including Herrington, emphasize that they do not question the decisions of the Navy SEAL team operators to kill bin Laden. “It’s a hair-trigger moment. You can’t second guess that,” he says.
Recent statements from Obama administration officials, however, indicate that bin Laden was unarmed. “Lurking in the background is that if [special operators] were told to go in and kill this guy – and they clearly understood the marching orders – he could have wrapped himself in an American flag and had a white flag in both hands” and still been killed, Herrington says. “Have we come to the point where it is simply seen as too much trouble to capture? [That it’s] better to kill and avoid the theatrics that have accompanied the trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others?” he wonders.
“I don’t think that the people crafting the rules of engagement for this operation would direct the killing of any individual affirmatively manifesting a bona fide intent to surrender,” says Charles Dunlap, former Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Air Force. “In bin Laden’s case, I am not aware of anything that suggests he had, let alone exhibited, any intent to surrender, so the assumption that he was hostile was justified, in my opinion.”
Killing bin Laden is widely considered legal, given the rules of war – drone strikes in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan routinely kill insurgents sleeping in their beds, for example.
“What I want to know is,” asks Herrington, “was it wise?