Torture debate overshadows US unity after bin Laden's killing

Half of Americans credit Bush for Osama bin Laden's killing, reigniting a debate over tactics including secret prisons and 'enhanced interrogation' techniques.

Larry Downing/Reuters/File
U.S. President Barack Obama is joined by former President George W. Bush in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington in this January 16, 2010 file photo. Bush has declined an invitation from Obama to attend a New York ceremony on Thursday to mark the killing of Osama bin Laden, Bush's office said.

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President Obama is enjoying a significant boost in his approval rating in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, but half of Americans credit the Bush administration for making his capture possible. The debate gets to the heart of how a democratic nation should fight an amorphous enemy that doesn't abide by the traditional rules of war.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted May 2 shows Obama's approval rating jumping to 56 percent Monday from 47 percent last month – similar to the boost former President George W. Bush received after the capture of Saddam Hussein. Seventy-six percent of respondents said Obama was responsible for a "great deal" or "some" credit for killing Mr. bin Laden.

But while there is widespread acknowledgment that the Obama administration executed the raid on bin Laden's compound admirably, some 51 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew said the Bush administration was responsible for bin Laden's elimination – even if it took 10 years after 9/11.

Conservative politicians and pundits say the capture wouldn't have happened without tactics authorized by Bush and often criticized by liberal politicians – specifically controversial secret prisons overseas and "enhanced interrogation" techniques, such as waterboarding, which many consider to be torture.

"The liberals, and specifically Barack Obama, have been dead wrong about how to fight this war. Obama is to be congratulated for making the right decision when the time came. But the intelligence gathering that led to his decision took us down paths that he never would have approved," wrote Jim Davis, a columnist for conservative news organization The Daily Caller.

The name of bin Laden's courier, who made a satellite phone call last summer that enabled the CIA to locate his boss's hideout in Abbottabad, was given by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a CIA secret prison in Eastern Europe, according to the Associated Press. Mr. Mohammed did not give the name while being subjected to waterboarding, however, and it took years of intelligence work to locate the courier.

The New York Times editorial board criticized former members of the Bush administration for saying that bin Laden's capture vindicated their controversial tactics. Rather, it was good intelligence that carried the day, the board maintained.

John Yoo, the former Bush Justice Department lawyer who twisted the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions into an unrecognizable mess to excuse torture, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the killing of Bin Laden proved that waterboarding and other abuses were proper. Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, said at first that no coerced evidence played a role in tracking down Bin Laden, but by Tuesday he was reciting the talking points about the virtues of prisoner abuse. …

No matter what Mr. Yoo and friends may claim, the real lesson of the Bin Laden operation is that it demonstrated what can be done with focused intelligence work and persistence.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said Wednesday as he was leaving an intelligence briefing by CIA Director Leon Panetta that no information he has seen indicated that techniques such as waterboarding were a significant factor in intelligence gathering that led to bin Laden's death. Members of the Obama administration say surveillance and standard interrogations were more critical in leading them to bin Laden's suburban hideout.

In Europe, where torture has less public support, news outlets ran stories and op-eds about the revival of the US debate on torture, but most did not go so far as to say that bin Laden's capture justified the controversial torture techniques. A Guardian columnist argued that even if bin Laden's death could be attributed to torture – which it can't, she says – that success is not enough to justify all the other torture cases.

"… It is still clear that the line peddled by George W Bush apologists (such as this Republican congressman) – that what this episode teaches us is that waterboarding works – is as wrong-headed as it is naive. …

So does the saga of Bin Laden's death help the case of the pro-torturers? Not really. Even accepting their own best-case scenario – that torture gave them the evidence that helped them trace Bin Laden – it also, in different cases, gave them the clear falsehoods that led to a massively costly war in Iraq based on the misguided belief in links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. …

But even if you do decide to take the facile and misleading arguments of certain Bush-era apologists at face value, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed + waterboarding = Bin Laden, maybe spare a thought for the thousands of others put through this ordeal (and worse) at Guantánamo and CIA black sites around the world."

Many have pointed out that bin Laden's killing, however it was achieved, is not the end of the fight against the brand of global terrorism he endorsed. Washington Times columnist Emily Miller says that bin Laden's capture demonstrates why Guantánamo Bay must be kept open, demanding that Obama expunge the order for its closure that he issued early in his presidency.

She endorses legislation introduced by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R) of California as the recipe for America's action against terrorism going forward:

The legislation would do the following: Keep Guantánamo Bay open (disregarding the 2009 executive order); ban any current or future detainees at Guantánamo Bay from being brought to the United States; reaffirm that military law is in effect for al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist networks; prevent detainees from being released to third countries that do not have adequate security to keep them from returning to the battlefield; and withdraw the new legal rights bestowed on the detainees by the White House.

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