Did Torture Lead Us To bin Laden?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at NYU, discussed the path that led the United States to Osama bin Laden and how interrogation led to critical information.

Reviving the debate

The New York Times headline reads "Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture." Three days after the al Qaeda leader's demise, proponents and opponents of "enhanced interrogation techniques" are scrambling to score points.

Did torture lead us to bin Laden? The answer, if we ever get it, would either shore up the policies initiated by the Bush administration and ensure their continued use in counterterrorism efforts, or undermine them completely.

Karen Greenberg expects the latter.

It seems that the people who were originally pointed to, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had been tortured, giving leads was precisely the opposite. They never revealed this information, despite 183 waterboardings. It was in fact the detainees who were interrogated without enhanced interrogation techniques who helped find the path to bin Laden. You can't have it both ways; members of the Bush administration have decided to revive the torture debate, and I find it quite distasteful and against the facts, yet it seems to be getting some traction.

A story we'll never know

Greenberg doubts that waterboarding and other interrogation techniques produced the reliable information about Osama bin Laden's courier, which in turn led to the 9/11 mastermind's discovery. However, she expects that, as a consequence of our delicate international intelligence apparatus, most of these misgivings and uncertainties will remain just that. The torture debate is in fact a distraction, she said, from the complex and controversial inner workings of that system.

I am pretty sure that we had other sources of information from the region, from intelligence services that coordinated domestically and internationally to find these people, to find the courier. Putting it all on Guantanamo Bay and torture is sort of a script that could have been written well ahead of time, but not one that may be relevant. This is the kind of story that intelligence services, the CIA, aren't going to tell us. Probably for good reason: how they got information outside of Guantanamo is probably very complicated and within a lot of legal gray areas, which is what covert operations are about. The focus on Guantanamo Bay takes focus off of what actually may have happened.

Logical gymnastics

To hear proponents of torture tell it, American intelligence agencies were able to single out bin Laden's courier based on what detainees didn't tell them. The narrative is that the individual in question was on the government's radar, and when detainees denied he was of any importance, that signaled that he was of importance.

A stretch? Karen Greenberg thinks so, and flatly denied that enhanced interrogation techniques were useful when they produced denials of accurate information.

That seems to me proof that the use of our interrogation techniques would take us 10 years to figure out what kind of information was useful or not. The world of what they deny or don't say is infinite. It can't be that they left these things out or didn't corroborate it, and that's how we found these people. I don't understand how thats a logical narrative.