The killing of Osama bin Laden provoked a host of reactions from Americans: celebration, triumph, relief, closure and renewed grief. One reaction, however, was both cynical and disturbing: crowing by the apologists and practitioners of torture that Bin Laden’s death vindicated their immoral and illegal behavior after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Jose Rodriguez Jr. was the leader of counterterrorism for the C.I.A. from 2002-2005 when Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other Al Qaeda leaders were captured. He told Time magazine that the recent events show that President Obama should not have banned so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. (Mr. Rodriguez, you may remember, ordered the destruction of interrogation videos.)
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.
There is no final answer to whether any of the prisoners tortured in President George W. Bush’s illegal camps gave up information that eventually proved useful in finding Bin Laden. A detailed account in The Times on Wednesday by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage concluded that torture “played a small role at most” in the years and years of painstaking intelligence and detective work that led a Navy Seals team to Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.
That squares with the frequent testimony over the past decade from many other interrogators and officials. They have said repeatedly, and said again this week, that the best information came from prisoners who were not tortured. The Times article said Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, fed false information to his captors during torture.
Even if it were true that some tidbit was blurted out by a prisoner while being tormented by C.I.A. interrogators, that does not remotely justify President Bush’s decision to violate the law and any acceptable moral standard.
This was not the “ticking time bomb” scenario that Bush-era officials often invoked to rationalize abusive interrogations. If, as Representative Peter King, the Long Island Republican, said, information from abused prisoners “directly led” to the redoubt, why didn’t the Bush administration follow that trail years ago?
There are many arguments against torture. It is immoral and illegal and counterproductive. The Bush administration’s abuses — and ends justify the means arguments — did huge damage to this country’s standing and gave its enemies succor and comfort. If that isn’t enough, there is also the pragmatic argument that most experienced interrogators think that the same information, or better, can be obtained through legal and humane means.
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.
The battered intelligence community should now be basking in the glory of a successful operation. It should not be dragged back into the muck and murk by political figures whose sole agenda seems to be to rationalize actions that cost this country dearly — in our inability to hold credible trials for very bad men and in the continued damage to our reputation.
By: Editorial Board, The New York Times, May 4, 2011
The mission to kill Osama bin Laden was years in the making, but began in earnest last fall with the discovery of a suspicious compound near Islamabad, and culminated with a helicopter based raid in the early morning hours in Pakistan Sunday.
“Last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground,” President Obama told the nation in a speech Sunday night.
“Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body,” he said.
Sitting in a row of chairs beside the podium were National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Press Secretary Jay Carney stood in the back with about a dozen White House staffers.
Since last August, Obama convened at least 9 meetings with national security principals about this operation and the principals met 5 times without the president, a senior administration official said. Their deputies met 7 times formally amid a flurry of other interagency communications and consultations.
ABC News reportedthat the principals’ meetings were held on March 14, March 29, April 12, April 19 and April 28.
Last week Obama finally had enough intelligence last to take action. The final decision to go forward with the operation was made at 8:20 AM on Friday, April 29 in the White House’s Diplomatic Room. In the room at the time were Donilon, his deputy Denis McDonough, and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan. Donilon prepared the formal orders.
On Sunday, Obama went to play golf in the morning at Andrews Air Force Base. He played 9 holes in chilly, rainy weather and spent a little time on the driving range, as well. Meanwhile, the principals were assembling in the situation room at the White House. They were there from 1:00 PM and stayed put for the rest of the day.
At 2:00, Obama met with the principals back at the White House. At 3:32 he went to the situation room for another briefing. At 3:50 he was told that bin Laden was “tentatively identified.” At 7:01 Obama was told there was a “high probability” the high value target at the compound was bin Laden. At 8:30 Obama got the final briefing.
Before speaking to the nation, Obama called former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Three senior administration officials briefed reporters late Sunday night on the surveillance, intelligence, and military operations that ended with bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. operatives.
“The operation was the culmination of years of careful and highly advanced intelligence work,” a senior administration official said.
The stream of information that led to Sunday’s raid began over four years ago, when U.S. intelligence personnel were alerted about two couriers who were working with al Qaeda and had deep connections to top al Qaeda officials. Prisoners in U.S. custody flagged these two couriers as individuals who might have been helping bin Laden, one official said
“One courier in particular had our constant attention,” the official said. He declined to give that courier’s name but said he was a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a “trusted assistant” of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a former senior al Qaeda officer who was captured in 2005.
“Detainees also identified this man as one of the few couriers trusted by bin Laden,” the official said. The U.S. intelligence community uncovered the identity of this courier four years ago, and two years ago, the U.S. discovered the area of Pakistan this courier and his brother were working in.
In August 2010, the intelligence agencies found the exact compound where this courier was living, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The neighborhood is affluent and many retired Pakistani military officials live there.
“When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw,” one official said.
The compound was 8 times larger than the other homes around it. It was built in 2005 in an area that was secluded at that time. There were extraordinary security measures at the compound, including 12 to 18 foot walls topped with barbed wire.
There were other suspicious indicators at the compound. Internal sections were walled off from the rest of the compound. There were two security gates. The residents burned their trash. The main building had few windows.
The compound, despite being worth over $1 million, had no telephone or internet service. There’s no way the courier and his brother could have afforded it, the official said.
“Intelligence officials concluded that this compound was custom built to hide someone of significance,” the official said, adding that the size and makeup of one of the families living there matched the suspected makeup of bin Laden’s entourage.
The intelligence community had high confidence that the compound had a high value target, and the analysts concluded there was high probability that target was bin Laden, one official said.
When the small team of U.S. operatives raided the compound in the early morning hours Sunday Pakistan time, they encountered resistance and killed three men besides bin Laden and one woman. The three men were the two couriers and one of bin Laden’s sons. The woman was being used as a human shield, one official said. Two other women were injured.
One U.S. helicopter was downed due to unspecified “maintenance” issues, one official said. The U.S. personnel blew up the helicopter before leaving the area. The team was on the ground for only 40 minutes.
A senior defense official told CNN that US Navy SEALs were involved in the mission.
No other governments were briefed on the operation before it occurred, including the host government Pakistan.
“That was for one reason and one reason alone. That was essential to the security of the operation and our personnel,” one official said. Only a “very small group of people” inside the U.S. government knew about the operation. Afterwards, calls were made to the Pakistani government and several other allied countries.
“Since 9/11 the United States has made it clear to Pakistan that we would pursue bin Laden wherever he might be,” one official said. “Pakistan has long understood we are at war with al Qaeda. The United States had a moral and legal obligation to act on the information it had.”
Americans abroad should stay indoors be aware of the increased threat of attacks following bin Laden’s killing, the State Department said in a new travel warning issued Sunday night. State also issued a specific travel warning for Pakistan.
“Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers may try to respond violently to avenge bin Laden’s death and other terrorist leaders may try to accelerate their efforts to attack the United States,” one official said. “We have always understood that this fight would be a marathon and not a sprint.”
By: Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy-The Cable, May 2, 2011
It’s official. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, will be tried by a military commission at Guantanamo Bay.
He will not be tried in Manhattan in the shadow of the World Trade Center. He will not be tried before the vast majority of the victims’ families. Nor will he be tried in any federal court. Instead, he will be tried offshore in a military commission process established in 2009 and yet to be tested. It is likely that he will be convicted of conspiring to plan and commit the attacks of 9/11 and that, he, along with his four co-defendants, the other 9/11 detainees at Guantanamo, will be given life sentences, if not the death penalty.
For those of us who have fought vociferously for the use of the federal court system to try terrorism suspects, the Obama administration’s decision is, on its surface, a defeat. The numbers make it clear: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 174 individuals have been convicted of jihadi-related terrorism in federal court, an 87 percent conviction rate, according to the most recent figures from the NYU Center on Law and Security terrorist trial report card.
From the early 1990s on, the courts have learned how to handle the challenges of terrorism cases, from classified or tainted evidence to the relevance of al-Qaeda’s strategic and tactical goals. The abandonment of the hard-earned professionalism of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys is a loss.
But it is not a defeat for justice itself. It is time to give up our long-standing protest and consider the good that can come from these trials — even if they are held at Guantanamo, and even if they are conducted by the military.
In prosecuting Mohammed, we will be trying the individual without whom there presumably would have been no 9/11 attack; the fact that he is secondary to Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy does not reduce his guilt. In a sense, he is the Eichmann of the attack, and his trial is no less important than was that of Hitler’s operational director.
Trying Mohammed and his co-conspirators for a crime that took place 10 years ago can only be seen as a positive. It is unfair that the country has waited this long to bring to justice anyone directly linked to 9/11. If part of the purpose of trials is to bring closure to the open wounds that result from wrongdoing, then the trial matters more than the venue, the jurisdiction or even the system itself.
The country’s need for some sort of closure around the Sept. 11 attacks was illustrated in part by the fear of having this trial in Manhattan. Although it is likely that few victims’ families will now be able to watch the proceedings in person, they will know what is happening, and they will be able to achieve some sense of justice and begin to heal.
There is a further benefit. The details of the 9/11 conspiracy remain a mystery to much of the American public. The trial will turn mystery into fact.
At present, we know generally about bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s determination to harm the United States and the failures of U.S. intelligence. But we don’t know details about these five men and their step-by-step intersection with the attacks — details that were outlined in the criminal indictment that was unsealed in New York this past week. The indictment lists the sequence of activities that made up the attacks and highlights the criminality of the conspiracy. Presumably, those facts will be central to the evidence presented at trial at Guantanamo.
The 9/11 attacks were a carefully conceived and coldheartedly implemented plot of immense destruction. They were not the work of men with superhuman powers, as al-Qaeda terrorists are often portrayed. Better knowledge of the story will not diminish the magnitude of the harm, but it will probably diminish the powerful mystique that so often surrounds al-Qaeda. Reducing the organization to flesh-and-blood figures, to individuals rather than a vast and dangerous specter, will be hugely significant in teaching the country that, although al-Qaeda is an enemy that arguably perpetrated the worst crime in American history, it is not invincible.
Admittedly, there are numerous pitfalls that threaten the military commission system. These trials will differ from those in the federal system in several ways. They will rely on a panel of at least five military judges, and the evidentiary standards will not be the same as those in federal court, though it is unlikely that evidence attained by torture will be allowed. There will be broader allowances for hearsay, and access for families to view the proceedings will be more limited.
In addition, there are worries — which would come with any trial — about giving a platform to Mohammed and his ideological pronouncements. Even the possibility of the death penalty is problematic, as he has expressed a desire to be martyred. In addition, the judges must able to keep the defendants and the courtroom under control, and the track record of trials at Guantanamo has fallen well below standards for evidence, legal tactics and courtroom decorum.
The fact is that this trial is going to take place. It’s not ideal. I would have preferred to see the case in the civilian courts. But a military trial is far preferable to the perpetual limbo of indefinite detention without trial — the very definition of Guantanamo.
The trial of Mohammed and his co-conspirators will signify a step forward in the nation’s ability to counter terrorism in a rational fashion. Rather than assume that the proceedings will fall below the standards of federal courts, let’s expect wise judgment in place of retributive justice. Let’s look for an enlightened use of the leeway provided by the Military Commissions Act. Let’s hope that, despite the unique limitations and allowances of that law, the presiding judge will keep this trial as close to the federal standards as possible.
These proceedings, nearly 10 years in the making, are likely to set the precedent for how this country tries terrorism suspects. Although it is outside the federal justice system, this trial could begin to restore the nation’s confidence in its ability to administer justice to even the most vile criminals — a confidence that may one day return trials for detainees in the war on terror to the nation’s long-tested federal courts system.
By: Karen J. Greenberg, The Washington Post, April 8, 2011
Many in the media, and many more of President Obama’s detractors from the left, are hitting his administration pretty hard today for this reversal. The development is obviously disappointing, but if we’re assigning blame, let’s at least direct at those responsible.
In a major reversal, the Obama administration has decided to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for his role in the attacks of Sept. 11 before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and not in a civilian courtroom.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is expected to announce on Monday afternoon that Mr. Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the attacks, and four other accused conspirators will face charges before a panel of military officers, a law enforcement official said. The Justice Department has scheduled a press conference for 2 p.m. Eastern time.
Mr. Holder, who had wanted to prosecute Mr. Mohammed before a regular civilian court in New York City, changed his mind after Congress imposed a series of restrictions barring the transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the United States, making such a trial impossible for now, the official said.
Even that last sentence is awkward — the Attorney General “changed his mind” after Congress “imposed a series of restrictions”? That’s a bit like saying I changed my mind about getting up after I was tied to my chair.
Holder told reporters this afternoon that his original decision was still the right one, but blamed Congress for “tying our hands.”
He happens to be right. Even today, Holder wants to do the right thing, and so does President Obama. And yet, Gitmo is open today, and KSM will be subjected to a military commission in the near future, not because of an administration that backed down in the face of far-right whining, but because congressional Republicans orchestrated a massive, choreographed freak-out, and scared the bejesus out of congressional Democrats. Together, they limited the White House’s options to, in effect, not having any choice at all.
There’s plenty of room for criticism of the administration, but those slamming Obama for “breaking his word” on this are blaming the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
By: Steve Benen, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, April 4, 2011