Conservatives have attempted to credit George W. Bush for President Barack Obama’s success in killing Osama bin Laden in various ways, from exaggerating the role of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” to praising Bush’s unsuccessful seven year attempt to do so.
Today, Ross Douthat offers the latest version of this argument: That killing Bin Laden constitutes “the most visible proof” so far of Bush-Obama continuity in matters of national security:
The death of Osama bin Laden, in a raid that operationalized Bush’s famous “dead or alive” dictum, offered the most visible proof of this continuity. But the more important evidence of the Bush-Obama convergence lay elsewhere, in developments from last week that didn’t merit screaming headlines, because they seemed routine rather than remarkable.
This is an odd formulation that ignores that the hunt for bin Laden predated the Bush administration — remember that conservatives accused President Bill Clinton of “wagging the dog” when authorizing missile strikes against al Qaeda in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Yet Douthat does not praise Clinton in making this argument about “continuity,” because doing so would acknowledge that any president, regardless of party, would regard it as part of his duty to defend American citizens from terrorism.
While there are indeed many examples of Obama continuing Bush-era policies to the frustration of liberals, killing bin Laden is not one of them. Rather, Obama’s focus on bin Laden represents a departure from his predecessor, who had decided shortly after 9/11 that bin Laden was “just a person who’s been marginalized,” just a small part of a much larger battle. As Michael Hirsh wrote last week, Obama rejected the Bush approach that “conflated all terror threats from al-Qaida to Hamas to Hezbollah,” replacing it with “with a covert, laserlike focus on al-Qaida and its spawn.”
During the 2008 election, Bush mocked Obama for asserting he would target bin Laden if he was hiding in Pakistan. GOP presidential candidate John McCain attacked Obama as “confused and inexperienced” for saying so.” It is a bit rich to regard the results of an operation that Bush and McCain would have opposed as “continuity” with the prior administration. There are a number of disturbing continuities between Bush and Obama on national security, but the singular focus on bin Laden isn’t one of them.
What is notable however, is that the major distinction between Obama and Bush that has formed the basis of GOP criticism of Obama — the President’s rejection of torture — has proven so decisively wrongheaded. Conservatives attempting to attribute successfully killing bin Laden to torture are merely attempting to take credit for what President Bush pointedly failed to do. Far from yielding the necessary intelligence, the two al Qaeda suspects who were waterboarded pointedly resisted identifying the courier whose activities lead to the U.S. discovering Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. The pro-torture argument ignores the obvious — that if torture was so effective, bin Laden would have been dead long ago. Bin Laden was found through years of painstaking intelligence gathering, not through the barbarous methods supported by many Bush apologists.
One cannot discount how shattering the Obama administration’s killing of Bin Laden has been to the self-image of conservatives who have convinced themselves of that the fight against al Qaeda hinges not just on torture, but on how many times the president says the word “terrorism,” or on Obama’s refusal to engage in juvenile expressions of American toughness.
While we’re far from the moment where terrorism ceases to be a threat, what torture apologists fear most now is a future in which al Qaeda is destroyed without the U.S. embracing the war-on-terror “dark side” that’s become central to their identity. Indeed, having rejected torture, Obama has nevertheless lead the country to its greatest victory in the fight against al Qaeda.
By: Adam Serwer, The Washington Post-The Plum Line, May 9, 2011
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
Did torture work? This is the question everyone is asking after Osama bin Laden’s death and the revelation that his fate was sealed by the identification of a courier whose nom de guerre emerged from the interrogation of top al Qaeda operatives who were known to have been subjected to waterboarding and similar techniques. “Did brutal interrogations produce the intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?” a May 3 New York Timesstory asked.
This is hardly the first time we’ve had this debate. In 2006, my team of interrogators in Iraq located local al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by identifying and following one of his spiritual advisors, Abu Abd al-Rahman. Eric Maddox, a U.S. Army interrogator, found Saddam Husseinby similar means, identifying his former bodyguards. It’s these little pieces of information that form the mosaic that gradually leads to a breakthrough. But how best to get those little pieces?
Current and former U.S. officials and their supporters have been quick to argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” and waterboarding led to the identification of the courier’s alias, which started U.S. intelligence down the road to bin Laden. The day after the al Qaeda leader’s death was announced, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the House Homeland Security Committee chair, told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that “For those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information [from waterboarding] that directly led us to bin Laden.” John Yoo, the former U.S. Justice Department official who drafted the George W. Bush administration’s legal rationales for officially sanctioned torture, repeated the claim and praised“Bush’s interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week’s actionable intelligence.” The torture bandwagon has started to kick into high gear. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In fact, the information about the existence of a courier working for bin Laden was provided by several detainees, not just waterboarded al Qaeda operatives Kalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi — we had one detainee in Iraq who provided information about a courier in 2006. The key pieces of information, however, were the courier’s real name and location. His family name was first uncovered by CIA assets in Pakistan through other sources. The NSA subsequently figured out his full real name and location from an intercepted phone call. Waterboarding had nothing to do with it.
Moreover, common sense dictates that all high-ranking leaders have couriers — and their nicknames do little to lead us to them. This is because many members of al Qaeda change names or take on a nom de guerre after joining for both operational security and cultural reasons. The names are often historically relevant figures in the history of Islam, like the Prophet Mohamed’s first follower, Abu Bakr. Think of it as the equivalent of a boxer taking on a nickname like “The Bruiser.”
Understanding these cultural nuances is just one critical skill interrogators must have to be effective. The other is an understanding of the social science behind interrogations, which tells us that torture has an extremely negative effect on memory. An interrogator needs timely and accurate intelligence information, not just made-up babble.
What torture has proven is exactly what experienced interrogators have said all along: First, when tortured, detainees will give only the minimum amount of information necessary to stop the pain. No interrogator should ever be hoping to extract the least amount of information. Second, under coercion, detainees give misleading information that wastes time and resources — a false nickname, for example. Finally, it’s impossible to know what information the detainee would have disclosed under non-coercive interrogations.
But to understand the question “Does torture work?” one must also define “work.” If we include all the long-term negative consequences of torture, that answer becomes very clear. Those consequences include the fact that torture handed al Qaeda its No. 1 recruiting tool, a fact confirmed by the U.S. Department of Defense’s interrogators in Iraq who questioned foreign fighters about why they had come there to fight. (I have first-hand knowledge of this information because I oversaw many of these interrogations and was briefed on the aggregate results.) In addition, future detainees will be unwilling to cooperate from the onset of an interrogation because they view all Americans as torturers. I heard this repeatedly in Iraq, where some detainees accused us of being the same as the guards at Abu Ghraib.
The more you think about, the less sense torture makes. U.S. allies will become unwilling to conduct joint operations if they are concerned about how detainees will be treated in U.S. custody (an argument made by the 9/11 Commission, among others). And future enemies will use our actions as justification to torture American captives. Torture also lowers our ethical standards to those of our enemies, an ugly shift that spreads like a virus throughout the Armed Services; witness the abuses of Abu Ghraib or the recent murders of civilians in Afghanistan.
Most importantly, we should be talking about the morality of torture, not its efficacy. When the U.S. infantry becomes bogged down in a tough battle, they don’t turn to chemical weapons even though they are extremely effective. The reason they don’t is because such weapons are illegal and immoral.
During the Revolutionary War, one top general made the point that torture was inconsistent with the fundamental beliefs of our founding fathers. “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to insure any [prisoner] … I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require,” he wrote to his troops in the Northern Expeditionary Force in the first year of the war. The general in question was George Washington. There’s a reason we pledge to believe in “liberty and justice for all” and not “liberty and security for all”: It’s because we place our values and principles higher than we place our security. When we cease to do so, we forfeit our right to be called Americans.
We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him. American interrogators safely guided us through World War II without the use of torture, fighting an enemy and interrogating prisoners every bit as brutal and dedicated as the members of al Qaeda. Our interrogators continue to prove time and time again that they are smart enough to outwit al Qaeda’s best and brightest. No one should ever doubt that we have the mental and ethical fortitude to win this war — and to do it without lowering ourselves to the level of our foes.
By: Matthew Alexander, Foreign Policy, May 4, 2011
It was inevitable, with the emergence and escalation of the “birther” campaign, that we would experience the same bizarre skepticism when it comes to Osama bin Laden. If there are a group of conspiracy theorists who insist on seeing proof of U.S. birth for President Obama, is it any surprise that there would be a concurrent call for proof of death for bin Laden?
President Obama has decided not to release a photo of the dead bin Laden. True, it would perhaps appease those who don’t really believe that the U.S. military and intelligence personnel, under Obama’s direction, completed the task of killing the hated bin Laden. But releasing a photo or video could also rally terrorist forces around the world, buttressing any movement to turn bin Laden into a martyr.
We’ve become unfortunately accustomed to a YouTube, reality TV, cell phone photo approach to living–a world where privacy and dignity are sacrificed for hyper-transparency and more commonly, pure voyeurism. But images matter, and sending provocative images or videos around the world can have a destructive effect. The Internet posting of a video showing the burning of a Koran in Florida is one such example, giving amplified attention to a local pastor whose narrow-mindedness and ignorance does not deserve to be promoted.
What would be the purpose of releasing a photo? Would it really reassure Americans that bin Laden is really dead? Or would it just provoke a new wave of conspiracy theories about doctored photos and lies? There are people, remarkably, who still don’t believe Obama was born in Hawaii, despite indisputable evidence to the contrary. Why would a picture of a dead bin Laden be any more effective? At best, it would give some satisfaction to those of us who want to see the face of hate bloodied and lifeless. At worst, it will incite would-be terrorists around the world.
And at its heart, the demand for pictures of a deceased bin Laden are not much different from the demands for further proof of Obama’s domestic birth. In both cases, we are dealing with people who simply cannot believe that a mixed-race man became president, and further, will refuse to believe he could have accomplished something so great. The Obama haters will believe what they want to believe, regardless of what is shown them. Releasing photos won’t change their minds.
By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, May 4, 2011
It was a very different Barack Obama who stood in the White House late Sunday to deliver the astounding and satisfying news that Osama bin Laden was dead. Or was it?
Obama was derided during the 2008 presidential campaign for saying he would be willing to go into Pakistan unilaterally to nab the hateful and hated leader of al Qaeda. The idea was naïve at best, diplomatically disastrous at worst, his opponents said. Obama’s calm tones, lack of swagger, and professed desire to repair relationships with the rest of the world—the Muslim world, in particular—were used as a weapon to portray him as weak, someone who would not possess the cool-headedness to destroy the most cold hearted of mass murderers. And yet, Obama, with the able help of U.S. intelligence and military minds and bodies, pulled it off brilliantly, and in a manner entirely keeping with the personage he offered during the campaign.
For most of us, the mere fact of bin Laden’s death would be enough. But the way the operation unfolded was virtually perfect: bin Laden was hunted down by U.S. forces and shot in the head—not killed in an air strike or explosion, but in a manner in which we can presume that bin Laden, in his final moments, knew that it was American troops who would personally take his life. No U.S. troops were killed, and civilian casualties (except, possibly, for the unidentified woman bin Laden used as a human shield) avoided. His body was identified by DNA, preemptively silencing any “deathers” who would circulate rumors that it was all just a public relations stunt and a lie. Bin Laden’s body was disposed of at sea—to avert the need to find a country willing to bury him, and to avoid having his grave site used as a rallying spot for al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers. He was buried quickly, in Muslim tradition, averting criticism that the United States was being insensitive to the religion. Pakistan, which Obama said cooperated in the mission, but which apparently did not know the details of it until it was done, has not accused the United States of any invasion of sovereignty.
In his White House address, the serious-faced president avoided showing any glee over bin Laden’s death, although he surely was as happy about it as the rest of America. Nor did he take a cheap political victory lap, declaring “mission accomplished” against terrorism; in fact, the president rightly warned, the nation needs to be on alert for any retaliatory attacks. He reiterated that the United States is not at war with Islam, but with terrorism. There was no comment, implicit or otherwise, that he had managed to achieve what former President Bush had failed to do—to get bin Laden. Obama had the good manners to call Bush personally to tell him of the feat, and Bush responded in his statement with grace.
Obama lacks Bush’s aggressive style and provocative rhetoric. That does not mean he is weak or was less determined to get bin Laden. And while the president had not mentioned bin Laden much in public recently, that does not mean the administration wasn’t working on it. Similarly, while the Bush administration did not manage to kill or capture bin Laden, we have no way of knowing how many major attacks the previous administration defused.
Obama on Sunday night might have shown some of his critics a side they didn’t think existed, that of a determined commander in chief. But that was exactly the approach Obama presented during the campaign. It was just that his opponents didn’t think he could pull it off. He did—and the fact that Obama is not hanging a “Mission Accomplished” banner across the East Room makes the feat even more impressive.
By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, May 2, 2011