It wasn’t torture that revealed Osama bin Laden’s hiding place.Finding and killing the world’s most-wanted terrorist took years of patient intelligence-gathering and dogged detective work, plus a little luck.
Once again, it appears, we’re supposed to be having a “debate” about torture — excuse me, I mean the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, that were authorized and practiced during the Bush administration. In fact, there’s nothing debatable about torture. It’s wrong, it’s illegal, and there’s no way to prove that the evidence it yields could not be obtained through conventional methods.
President Obama ended these practices. Torture remained a stain on our national honor, but one that was beginning to fade — until details of the hunt for bin Laden began to emerge.
According to widespread reports, the first important clue in the long chain leading to bin Laden’s lair came in 2004 from a Pakistani-born detainee named Hassan Ghul, who was held in one of the CIA’s secret “black site” prisons and subjected to coercive interrogation. Ghul was not waterboarded but may have been offered other items on the menu, including sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures and being placed in painful “stress positions” for hours at a time.
Ghul reportedly disclosed the nom de guerre of an al-Qaeda courier — Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — who appeared to have access to the terrorist organization’s inner circle. The CIA was able to deduce that Ghul was referring to a man they had heard of before, a trusted aide who might know where bin Laden was hiding.
Two of the highest-ranking al-Qaeda leaders who were taken into U.S. custody — operations chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded repeatedly, and Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was not waterboarded but was subjected to other harsh interrogation techniques — pointedly declined to talk about al-Kuwaiti. Ghul, however, described al-Kuwaiti as a close associate and protege of both Mohammed and al-Libi. CIA analysts believed they might be on the right track.
It was, of course, just one of many tracks that might have led to bin Laden. This and other trails went hot and cold until last summer, when al-Kuwaiti made a phone call to someone being monitored by U.S. intelligence, who then watched his movements until he led them in August to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was cornered and killed.
Torture apologists are saying, “See, it worked.” But the truth is that there’s no proof — and not even any legitimate evidence — that torture cracked the case.
It’s true, apparently, that Ghul opened up to interrogators after being roughed up in some fashion. It’s not clear that he was ever subjected to techniques that amount to torture, but let’s assume he was. The question is whether such treatment was necessary to get Ghul to talk.
And there’s no way to prove it was. Many experienced interrogators believe that torture is counterproductive — that it produces so much unreliable information that it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not. These experts believe that noncoercive techniques are far more effective because when the subject does begin to talk, more truth than falsehood comes out.
Torture apologists often concoct hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenarios to validate coercion, including the infliction of pain. But this was a real-world scenario of slowly collecting names, dates, addresses, phone numbers and other disconnected bits of information, over seven years, before finally being able to put them all together.
Would al-Kuwaiti’s name and role have been extracted anyway, from Ghul or some other detainee, without coercive interrogation? If the two al-Qaeda higher-ups hadn’t been subjected to harsh techniques, could they still have been led to cooperate with their questioners? Would they still have dissembled, tellingly, when asked about the courier who eventually led us to bin Laden?
I believe the odds are quite good that the CIA would have gotten onto al-Kuwaiti’s trail somehow or other. But I can’t be certain — just as those who defend torture and coercive interrogation can’t be sure that these odious methods made the daring and successful raid possible.
What I do know is that torture is a violation of U.S. and international law — and a betrayal of everything this country stands for. The killing of bin Laden resulted from brilliant intelligence work, for which both the Bush and Obama administrations deserve our thanks and praise.
There’s plenty of credit to go around — but not for torture. We should celebrate the victory of cherished American values, not their temporary abandonment.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 5, 2011
Some are questioning the legality of the raid in Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Was it lawful for a team of Navy SEALs to launch a mission in Abbottabad without permission from Pakistani leaders? Did they comply with international strictures when they killed the al-Qaeda leader rather than capturing him and bringing him before a court of law?
In a word: yes.
The analysis must begin with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when about 3,000 innocents were murdered by Osama bin Laden and his forces. There was no guesswork involved in pinpointing the culprits: He took credit for the bloodshed and reiterated his call for attacks against the United States and its allies. In passing the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) just one week later, Congress explicitly empowered the president to take all appropriate and necessary action against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and all those who helped or harbored them. It was, in short, a declaration of war, and Osama bin Laden was rightly targeted for his central role in the atrocities.
Absent a surrender, there is no question that U.S. forces would have been entitled to shoot him on sight had they encountered him on an Afghan battlefield. But that is not where the terrorist leader spent his time. After lengthy and intricate intelligence-gathering, the Obama administration tracked him to a heavily secured mansion in a city outside Islamabad populated by military officers and the country’s elite military academy. With suspicions high that Osama bin Laden enjoyed some semblance of official protection, the Obama administration rightly decided to proceed without notifying Pakistan.
International law recognizes a country’s inherent right to act in self-defense, and it makes no distinction between vindicating these rights through a drone strike or through a boots-on-the-ground operation. Administration officials have described the raid as a “kill or capture” mission and asserted that the SEALs would have taken Osama bin Laden alive had he surrendered and presented no threat to U.S. personnel or the others in the compound that night. This, according to official accounts, did not happen.
Much has been made of the disclosure that Osama bin Laden was unarmed, but this, too, is irrelevant in determining whether the operation was lawful. The SEALs entered the compound on a war footing, in the middle of the night, prepared to encounter hostile fire in what they believed to be the enemy leader’s hideout. They reported that they became embroiled in a firefight once inside; they had no way of knowing whether Osama bin Laden himself was armed. Even if he had signaled surrender, there is no reason to believe that danger had evaporated. As Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said during a congressional hearing on Wednesday: “From a Navy SEAL perspective, you had to believe that this guy was a walking IED,” prepared to blow up himself and those around him or possibly to detonate an explosive that would have engulfed the entire house.
It is easy in the light of day to second-guess decisions made in the heat of war. It is particularly easy for those who refuse to acknowledge that war in the first place. Based on information released by the administration, the covert military operation that brought down the most wanted terrorist in the world appears to have been gutsy and well executed. It was also lawful.
By: Editorial Board Opinion, The Washington Post, May 4, 2011
As a fleet of French airplanes lacerated a column of Libyan army vehicles near Benghazi on Saturday, President Obama stuck to his prearranged schedule in Brazil, receiving whispered updates from his aides. Within three hours, more than 100 cruise missiles had hit two dozen targets in Libya. That’s just “the first phase,” William Gortney, the director of the Joint Staff, told reporters.
What he didn’t say: It’s the first phase of what will become Barack Obama’s first new war. By directing the military to hit targets inside Libya, the Obama administration is trying to strike an incredibly delicate balance between a strong disinclination to invade a Muslim country and their determined desire to avoid looking like they’re walking away from the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents.
When Muammar el-Qaddafi first struck back against protesters, Obama hoped that tough sanctions and material support to the opposition would be enough to force the dictator from power. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned him that a “no fly zone” would be ineffective and essentially commit the country to war. By Monday night, it was clear to Obama that this policy wasn’t working. Countries like Iran were getting the wrong message. The Libyan military was selectively testing the patience of the world by striking opposition strongholds. The opposition was pinned down in the port city of Benghazi, swelled by tens of thousands of refugees. Qaddafi kept using a phrase that stuck in Obama’s head: “no mercy.” And France, smarting from seeming to abandon Egyptians during their time of trouble, along with the U.K., were champing at the bit to use force. The Arab League had kicked Libya out and was closer to the French position. It risked its own legitimacy, already questioned by many in the region, if it didn’t side with the rebels.
On Tuesday, during a meeting of his national security team, Obama said he wanted a new policy. “Clearly, what we’re doing is not enough,” he said, according to contemporaneous notes kept by a participant. A “humanitarian disaster” was imminent unless something was done. He wanted more options.
Gates wanted to game out scenarios, knowing that any effective no-fly zone would necessitate a cascade of other military actions that would look a heck of a lot like an invasion, no matter how carefully it was done.
Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser and one of the gatekeepers of Obama’s foreign policy, was worried about the strategic implications of both allowing Qaddafi to succeed in retaking control of Benghazi as well as what would happen down the road in other countries if a successful military response ousted him from power with a minimum of bloodshed. Even the lightest military footprint would result in civilian casualties, he warned. Almost as inevitable would be the death of a coalition soldier or the downing of an airplane.
Hillary Rodham Clinton said instability in Libya threatened to clip the democratic aspirations of its two neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia. She was also worried about the message to Iran if the U.S. and its allies did nothing in Libya: America was so afraid of committing its military to protect Muslims and Arabs that it would allow virtually anything to happen.
The meeting broke up.
Donilon would take charge of a rapid-fire series of conference calls and meetings and would, by that night, bring to the president three new policy proposals, each of which would call for a mix of diplomatic, military and intelligence actions against Libya. Obama had dinner with his combat commanders, and solicited their input about what challenges the military would face. At 9 p.m. that night, he reconvened only his principals. (Clinton was represented by her deputy, James Steinberg.) Donilon laid out his proposals. After about an hour, the Situation Room had come to a rough consensus: a no fly zone wouldn’t work, but more words would not work either. Obama instructed his U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, to inform the Security Council that France’s resolution, which called for a no fly zone and little else, was insufficient. He asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, to turn into him by the next evening a Concept of Operation Plan, or CONPLAN, for a NATO-executed military campaign in Libya that would be assisted by Arab countries.
In closed session at the U.N., Rice laid out the U.S. position. The situation was urgent and dire. But the world had to know precisely what it would mean to keep Libyan troops from murdering their own citizens. Any resolution would have to include language authorizing strikes against Libyan military infrastructure on the ground to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. “We are not going to hide pooch,” Rice said in the meeting, according to a U.S. official. “We must be completely clear about what we are going to do and why.” And Arab countries must participate, she insisted, in some visible way, in the campaign. She proposed a number of amendments that added significant heft to the resolution.
For the next 24 hours, Clinton and Rice tag-teamed Arab countries and members of the Security Council. They argued that if nothing was done, despots and beleaguered leaders everywhere would vow never to repeat the “mistake” of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who yielded power without foreign military intervention. Iran, in particular, would find itself with an incentive to continue to spread its proxy forces to other countries and further repress its own citizens. And Rice has made the reinvigoration of the United Nations one of her prime goals as ambassador. The legitimacy of that body was at stake too, she argued.
On Wednesday, at about 6:30 p.m., Mullen and Donilon presented Obama with their CONPLAN for Libya. Its contents are mostly classified; an official said the air strikes on Saturday were one part of a larger campaign that includes a variety of overt and covert actions. Published reports suggest that U.K. special operations forces were secreted in the country, scouting out the battlefield in preparation for air strikes. The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command moved several tactical air teams to a small base on Crete. In order to try and disguise their movements, the U.S. planes changed their call signs once they entered airspace over the Mediterranean, but commercial software that tracks their transponders revealed the shift, and word leaked out on Twitter. These teams would coordinate the air assault but are capable of parachuting into a region and directing them from the ground.
On Friday, the U.S. moved a Rivet Joint signals intelligence plane to Souda Air Base on a Greek Island, bearing the provocative call sign of “SNOOP 55.” Subs capable of launching Tomahawk missiles idled near Italy. The USS Florida, armed with more than 100 Tomahawks, moved into firing range. Twenty four hours after the U.S. introduced its amendments, it got its resolution, 10-0. Obama spoke with his counterparts in France and the UK and agreed that they’d give Qadaffi 24 hours to turn heel and retreat. If he didn’t, France would begin the bombardment.
It was important to the U.S. that Libyans and the world understand that this coalition of the willing was more than a U.S. rhetorical construct. An hour before bombing began Saturday, Clinton spoke to the press in Paris. Asked why military action was in America’s interest, she gave three reasons and implied a fourth. A destabilizing force would jeopardize progress in Tunisia and Egypt; a humanitarian disaster was imminent unless prevented; Qaddafi could not flout international law without consequences. The fourth: there’s a line now, and one that others countries had better not cross.
The development of a new doctrine in the Middle East is taking form, and it could become a paradigm for how the international community deals with unrest across the region from now on. The new elements include the direct participation of the Arab world, the visible participation of U.S. allies, as well as a very specific set of military targets designed to forestall needless human suffering. Though the Libyan situation is quite unique – its military is nowhere near as strong as Iran’s is, for one thing – Obama hopes that a short, surgical, non-US-led campaign with no ground troops will satisfy Americans skeptical about military intervention and will not arouse the suspicions of Arabs and Muslims that the U.S. is attempting to influence indigenously growing democracies.
By: Marc Ambinder, Contributing Editor, The Atlantic, March 20, 2011