Did Torture Lead Us To bin Laden?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

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.


Karen Greenberg


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Comments [43]

Zack Carusso from Marred Tree, AK

You ultra liberal New Yorkers are laughable. It is easy to Monday Morning Quarterback in your Park Avenue Condo.

Just remember this - the rest of us Americans fight, and die, to give you the right to your "intellectual" folly.

There are more Jews in your city than there are in Israel. It is our support of these neighbors of yours that started this whole mess. Quit whining and join the rest of us in supporting your neighbors.

99% of you ultra liberal New York types have no idea about the Constitution. You sure don't seem to mind illegal Federal encroachment upon State and Individual rights. Mention one word about exercise of military power, which your sons never assist with, and you go haywire?

May. 07 2011 01:32 AM

mgduke -- agree & well put, i assumed brian was scooping this one up for a news-breaking full segment today, when i saw it wasn't on the story lineup, and without explaination, i forwarded this to the authorities and media. everyone's ego needs stroking, rightly so, but in the end this is a community show on public radio, especially when it is a matter of significance.

May. 05 2011 10:36 AM
Paul Penton

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."


May. 04 2011 07:51 PM
Paul Penton

I was disgusted by the part of the show talking about cheers, confined to the cheering over Osama's death. I don't care if this person was Satan, you do not cheer like an idiot when the state assassinates them, especially in another person's country. But, this is America, we live by a different set of rules then other lands. They live by international law, morality and the Geneva conventions, we do what we please, when we please. We crack open a beer and kill at will. But don't dare call it justice.

May. 04 2011 07:37 PM

Why did Lehrer give so little time to the by far most interesting caller, the man who said he had a brother working as an ER doc in Abbotabad, and started off with the significant info that Pakistani military officials had known about our raid hours before it took place?

Why hustle this caller off air to take his info privately and not let your listeners hear this kind of breaking news? Why this contrast with all the time Lehrer gave to his first caller who went on and on saying nothing new at all, while Lehrer just let him repeat himself, and then made a point of emphasizing how grateful he was?

Was Lehrer trying to make sure no unfiltered news from Abbotabad would get out to the public before being approved? Obviously this Pakistani caller could have been making it all up, but he was speaking in a reasonable tone of voice, and starting to say things that sounded very worth hearing out.

Please let your listeners hear breaking news when it comes in. Haven't you noticed, even with regard to the OBL story, that we are a lot better a distinguishing fact from fiction than you are?

May. 04 2011 11:07 AM
Michael from New York

It is bad journalism for WNYC reporters to state as if it were a fact that “The United States has killed Osama Bin Laden”.

Osama Bin Laden is a person with whom there has been no contact in almost 10 years. Any event involving a person missing for that length of time raises the fundamental question of identity. As of yet, there has been no independent confirmation of the United States’ allegation of the identity of the deceased.

Good journalistic procedure requires that a statement be confirmed by independent sources before a journalist reports them as facts.

If WNYC wished to use good journalistic procedure, WNYC reporters would say, “The United States alleges to have assassinated Osama Bin Laden. As of yet, no independent sources have confirmed this allegation.”

May. 04 2011 10:59 AM
ray from red bank

the idea that we can obtain any credible information through torture just seems illogical to me. Anyone that is being tortured would say anything, whether true or not, to make it stop.

Even by some off chance that "enhanced interrogation techniques" did lead to information about Bin Laden, is it worth throwing away all of our ideals, humanity and morality, to achieve it? Isn't torture the way that countries like, Iran and China get their citizens to confess to any and everything?

In the light of the "Muslim Spring," the United States has been lecturing regimes (Egypt, Syria, Libya, et all) about their human rights but we are basically doing the same thing at Gitmo and through extraordinary rendition.
Some argue that it is ok to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" because we are dealing with "enemy combatants" that are dangerous to our nation security. However, we don't tolerate such techniques in dealing with dangerous suspects in our own country, so why is acceptable to do it to foreign nationals?

May. 04 2011 10:54 AM
Katie from Brooklyn

The president of the U.S. has no right to order assassinations. There has been no credible claim that OBL resisted arrest with enough force to justify killing him. I'm disappointed that so many people are willing to give President Obama a pass on the rule of law.

Also, equating Hitler and OBL is absurd. Hitler was the leader of a country with which the U.S. was at war. He had huge armies at his command, was engaged in the continuing, systematic murder of millions of people, and posed a serious ongoing threat. OBL was a figurehead who had little actual power after being forced into hiding by a global manhunt, and he was hiding in a country with which we're not at war. He posed little actual threat, and nothing that justified an assassination.

Justice was not done. An illegal assassination was carried out in violation of international law, Pakistani sovereignty, and the U.S. Constitution. And the whole country is cheering. A huge disappointment.

May. 04 2011 10:52 AM
gary from queens

Torture works in some instances. They've worked in the past. i will give one example. The people of Iraq were so frieghtened of the saddism of Sadam Hussain that it kept him in power for 40 years. It would have lasted longer had we not toppled him.

May. 04 2011 10:50 AM
Denis C. from Westchester

Please issue an on-air correction: you just said that the Situation Room pix were a photo op to implicitly influence the media, where they let in photographers. (Your plural.) In truth, the photos were taken only by Pete Souza THE White House official photographer, who has Top Secret clearance by the way. Of course the very release of a picture at all has historical implications, but I don't believe you're saying creating a record of history is never served by stenographers. Are you?

May. 04 2011 10:43 AM
Brian from Hoboken

Oh Lord. Here we go with the conspiracy theories. We shot Bin Laden to shut him up. He really isn't dead. Why did they bury him at sea so quickly? He had a gun. He was unarmed. On and on....
It doesn't matter whether the government releases photos of Bin Laden. Those Jo think it's a big conspiracy will continue to think so (just look at the ridiculous birthers). The left wingers are going to criticize Obama and bring it all back to torture and callin this an illegal assassination. The right wingers are goig to complain that Obama is changing the details and will try to do everything but give the administration credit for getting the guy.
We killed a known self declared terrorist who is responsible for the death o thousands. Done. Does it change much in our everyday lives? No. But it shows that if wenare serious about tracking down and bringing to justice people who harm or try to harm us. Simple. Be happy (but stop with the USA cheers- how about silent reflection instead).

May. 04 2011 10:38 AM
Louise Flax from Norwalk, CT

I think if they release his picture, someone will put it on a tee shirt and that would be a very bad thing.

May. 04 2011 10:32 AM
RJ from prospect hts

Where would we be without the Nuremberg trials?

May. 04 2011 10:29 AM
Kerner from Bronx, NY

It's not just about torture producing intel that *might* have led to bin Laden (even if it appears to be false). Torture means you loose informant networks, and bin Laden's death shows the importance of such networks for collecting intelligence. Much of this story is contained in the book, None of Us Were Like This Before. Check it out...

The recent caller from Pakistan who learned about intel by speaking to bin Laden's family just confirmed my point!

May. 04 2011 10:28 AM
S.J. from New York

The situation room images released were not a "photo op" where they let a photo pool in, something that Brian exclaimed "does not happen every day." The photos are clearly marked as being by Pete Souza, the official Presidential photographer who follows Obama around at all times. This is not the first glaring error in your coverage of this story (e.g., on Monday asking if one of the Seals would qualify for a $10 million reward...). So like the White House you will have to update and correct your story--but are not operating under the pressures they are or having just scored a major coup. Ironic, given the story you are hyping about "corrections."

May. 04 2011 10:27 AM
Jeff Pappas from Ct

Please lets be a bit skeptical of what the Government says, re: how they got the info, of course they will say that Gitmo worked !
Dont just jump on the bandwagon like the lead up to War in Iraq.
Show us the photo of OBL dead
Show us Curveballs yellow cake ( remember )

May. 04 2011 10:27 AM
Harry Potter from nyc

Let's torture it's great.....

The interrogators will make the right torture decision.

All great nations torture (saudi arabi, lybia, egypt we can go on)

May. 04 2011 10:27 AM
Steven from New York

Have we forgotten 20th century history already? Callers will often misrepresent facts, but "expert" guests?? For shame, Karen Greenberg. Hitler mass-murdered 6 million Jews, and overall around 18 million people died because of his actions. Bin Laden is also a mass murder and may well have deserved his fate, but Bin Laden is NO Hitler.

May. 04 2011 10:27 AM
Nate Bowman

Why, after all of these years, is there still debate over the efficacy, legality and morality of torture?

Why is the starting point NOT that interrogation professionals who have repeatedly railed against not only the ineffectiveness of torture (because victims will tell whatever they think the torturers want to hear) but also the consequent degradation of the source's value.

Or, that the interrogations were informed by bad science

Or, that no one bothered to look at the origin of the techniques the CIA wanted to use,%20No%20Inquiry%20Into%20Their%20Past%20Use&st=cse

Or, that FBI and many in the armed services objected to the torture from the beginning.

May. 04 2011 10:26 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I've been wondering how the SEALs got the detailed info on the interior layout of the compound. Several reports said they conducted extensive "rehearsals" in a replica of the building that they had constructed--how did they know how to copy it? Something as simple as openly getting the blueprints from the construction co.?

May. 04 2011 10:25 AM
Leah from Washington Heights

The NYT's subheadline on this was to the effect of "haste to report leads to errors." Could the media and our insatiable hunger for immediate information have inadvertently contributed to the publicizing of misinformation (which, I think we should note, is different from misleading communication)? Brian, if they had delayed on giving details in the name of accuracy you would be having this same segment but the focus would be "why are the details so slow in coming?!"

May. 04 2011 10:23 AM

To the caller just now, this is a war because we've called it a war and ratified thereby the war-narrative of Bin Laden and his ilk to the benefit of their recruiting--a fundamental mistake from the start regarding what instead should have been characterized as a police action. But the war narrative served Bush here at home, so there you go! Warriors are noble; criminals aren't. We elevate terrorists in the eyes of their possible supporters by declaring war on them, esp. given that they've managed to keep the fight up against us, the largest military power in the history of the world, for more than a decade.

May. 04 2011 10:22 AM
Nate Bowman

Osama's death means very little.

We will be told this is a significant development but the progress is fragile and reversible.

The war machine will still keep keeping on.

Another villain will be found.

More hundreds of billions will be spent at the expense of the social safety net (that the robber barons [with the complicity of the media] have convinced the public should be called "entitlements" as if they are some kind of luxury.)

May. 04 2011 10:22 AM
Bill from UWS

I'm not sorry that OBL was shot during the raid, but let's not forget, after WWII we put many, many Nazi leaders on trial and executed some.

Why not take OBL alive and put the SOB on trial - he was responsible for many fewer deaths than Goering, Eichmann, etc.

We have always prided ourselves on our legal process, on not being barbarian, if we lose sight of that, we lose something that makes us unique.

May. 04 2011 10:22 AM
Newspeak 2 from NYC

In reference to the comments on "taking out Hitler" - let's also note that this thing called the "Nuremberg Trials" happened - and that these people had defense lawyers and accepted legal procedures were scrupulously followed - because there was still a semblance of care about fundamental legal principles. Today, the US must own and define itself by waterboarding, 3rd-party wink-wink torture by proxy, and Guantanamo.

May. 04 2011 10:22 AM
Peter from Manhattan

I think it's incorrect to equate bin Laden to Hitler. In the popular imagination (TV, radio, internet, political advertising), yes, but in a very practical sense, absolutely not. Bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of over three thousand innocents. Hitler for millions and millions. There is no comparison and it's silly to make one.

May. 04 2011 10:21 AM

On Democracy Now this morning, Matthew Alexander, a former senior decorated, military interrogator in Iraq asserted:. "I believe wholeheartedly [Bush-era] techniques slowed us down on the road toward Osama bin Laden and numerous other members of Al Qaeda," Alexander says. "I am convinced we would have found him a lot earlier had we not resorted to torture and abuse."

May. 04 2011 10:21 AM
Ellen from Hoboken

Brian, I feel as if I am listening to people discuss battered wife syndrome. The husband a lifelong batterer (Osama) doesn't have a weapon in hand when his wife finally shoots him. And she must rationalize the shooting because he was unarmed, despite all the death threats she knows he will make good on someday. Doesn't really make sense. As soon as the batterer has the weapon, you're dead.

May. 04 2011 10:21 AM
gary from queens


Debating Interrogation Techniques
Peter Wehner 05.03.2011 - 5:30 PM

MAY 2, 2011
Viva Guantanamo: The much-maligned interrogators helped dispatch bin Laden.
Osama bin Laden never made it to Guantanamo Bay, but his arrival in hell appears to have been hastened by information gathered from the terrorists who are detained there. The Associated Press has the story:

Breaking Down KSM
May 3, 2011 9:53 A.M.
By Shannen Coffin

The New York Times ignores Leon Panetta’s confirmation of waterboarding’s role in Bin Laden assassination in harsh interrogation story

C.I.A. Interrogations
Updated: Nov. 9, 2010

Can Americans Handle the Truth?
Abe Greenwald 05.04.2011 - 1:30 AM

May. 04 2011 10:20 AM

If Hitler was armed and fighting, then no, there'd be no discussion to kill him.
But if he were not armed, he should have been captured and tried, not killed.

The Nuremberg trials showed that yes, war criminals responsible for the most heinous crimes imaginable can be arrested, tried, sentenced, and, where appropriate, executed lawfully.

If the fight against al Qaida is a war, then the combatants are to be treated in accordance with the laws of military engagement, the Geneva Conventions, and the other laws of war.

May. 04 2011 10:20 AM
BIg Diky from NYC

I am happy that we are becoming so open minded about torturing and assasinations.

This is really a great advancement in our civilization.

Akin to the "We the People... " goes to "We the Folks..." in our constitution.

I believe that we can start taking it out of the dark and privatize and sell it... I can see how the US can over time come to dominate the market... Lets face it there is a lot of demand for good torture and assasination techniques out there.

May. 04 2011 10:18 AM
gary from queens

Some in Europe are debating whether Obama's "shoot first, ask questions later" approach is legal----within international law. Had Bush been president when Osama was shot, point blank and unarmed, there wouldn't be any debate.

Frontline reported tonight that there have been 5 times as many aerial drone attacks in afghanistan and pakistan than under Bush's 8 years. Civilian casualties are higher with such attacks.

On the debate about enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT), we waterboarded 3 detainees in 10 years. But it turns out that other harsh techniques were responsible for capturing Osama. I assembled several articles on that subject (below).

My own view is this: We must permit the top experts in interrogations decide when, and if, a particular detainee or situation warrants harsh interrogations, or else the more civil types.

Why do I defer to the technical experts on such a moral decision? BECAUSE I MAINTAIN THAT THIS MUST NOT BE A MORAL DETERMINATION!!!! We must not think of ourselves as barbaric, or lowering ourselves to the level of our enemies. Or as some like to say, "this is not about them, it's about us". My view is that it should be "about us winning the war."

In other words, war is horrible----all the more reason it must be won above all. To win, you use whatever tools are at your disposal against an ememy that follows no rules of war. Therefore, the reason for EIT is not for revenge, or to be cruel. Indeed, I would hope that interrogators would find this method distasteful. Rather than deciding on its morality, it should only be decided whether or not it's necessary and warranted. Morality cannot infringe upon the decision. Just the strategic aspect should be considered.

If a mushroom cloud occurs as a result of moral decisions that we be civil with detainees, there will be no moral defense of it. Certainly not for the millions who may perish because of such a pretentious calculation. Indeed, not even for the survivors. Especially the survivors.

So for the moralists in Europe, i would refer them to Winston Churchill----a man most responsible for saving Europe against a previous abhorent ideology. In the weeks and months before D-Day, Churchill had all of the known nazi spies in Britain rounded up. British interrogators were ordered to give the spies a choice: Get a bullet in the head, or live. They would be permitted to live if they sent a radio message to their German handlers that the allied invasion would occur at Pas de Calais, and not Normandy.

Churchill committed a war crime under today's laws of war. In doing so, we may have won WWII. Because during THAT war, the allies often did what was necessary to win----moral or not. Win the war. That is your sole obligation to your citizens, and to the armed forces you're commanding. I would even say, MORAL obligation.

May. 04 2011 10:18 AM

Be more than a "stenographer" but don't be a fiction writer. If the 2 statements are contridicatory, then play them. Let's hear them and see if they truly are different. Where's the audio replay is you're so right?

May. 04 2011 10:18 AM
Edward from NJ

Combine a covert military/intelligence operation half a world away with a 24 hour news culture that feeds on any information it can get and you're bound to end up with shifting information as more details become available. Just imagine the reactions if the administration remained silent until they were absolutely sure that every detail was correct.

May. 04 2011 10:18 AM
Jeff Pappas from Ct

We can't preach democracy while saying WE can Torture but YOU cant, Stop the big brother stuff
Show me the photo we have all seen worst images, Musilini was hung up and beaten by mobs
Its like keeping our death penalty underground and undocumented

May. 04 2011 10:18 AM
gary from queens

dear mgduke

I bigger question is why did Obama get on TV to announce to the world---including the terrorist cells whose identities may have been on the computers the SEALs had recovered----that we killed obama. All the terrorists working for Al Qaeda were notified by that announcement to disappear in the wind. Obama couldn't wait a week or two for his triumphant moment?!

May. 04 2011 10:15 AM
Newspeak from NYC

Why does the term "enhanced interrogation techniques" continue to be used with a straight face?

May. 04 2011 10:15 AM

I agree with the current caller. All this splitting hairs makes wnyc sound like fox or msnbc. sad really.

May. 04 2011 10:14 AM
Fuva from Harlem

If "it's a good question", that she can't answer, then how can she be so easily dismissive of the notion that officials are misleading...?

May. 04 2011 10:13 AM

According to al-Aribiya the USA couldn't take all the people in the compound because one of the choppers crashed so they left behind Bin Laden's daughter who is now in Pakistani custody and she said that the soldiers shot Bin Laden after grabbing him and seeing he wasn't armed. So then when the US is trying to bad mouth Pakistan in the press the Pakistanis know what really happened and have the witnesses.

May. 04 2011 10:11 AM

Brain, you just said that the military guy said OBL was armed. You need to go back and check the transcript. He may have implied that, but he NEVER actually said OBL was armed.

May. 04 2011 10:11 AM
Robert from NYC

I think, it's likely that, it could be that, it may well be that, my guess is that, they may have felt that... lol.

May. 04 2011 10:11 AM

To everyone paying attention to the details, it’s been obvious since President Obama stated that our forces killed OBL “after a firefight”--not during a firefight--that the purpose of the mission was not to capture OBL but to kill him.

I didn’t hear the news until 8:00 A.M. Monday morning, but by around 8:30 I had written and emailed a comment to WNYC pointing out that our raid had been a kill mission to execute OBL and posing the question of whether OBL had been “executed rather than brought to trial in order to conceal the information he could have given about the development and actions of al Qaeda--particularly about its current plans going forward and about what nations, intelligence services, and other groups and individuals were involved in the planning and carrying out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America?”

Instead of trying to answer that most salient question, your hosts and their selected guests deliberately elided it, choosing instead to parrot an incredible (in fact, childishly ridiculous) cover story including claims that OBL had been killed while engaging in a firefight and trying to use his wife as a human shield.

The incredibility of those claims is obvious to anyone who has paid any attention to OBL’s statements and actions over the years. And people who don’t pay the attention needed to understand our enemies have no business commenting publicly about matters affecting our national security.

Given that CIA must have sent our special operations team in with video surveillance equipment, the precise details of OBL’s assassination cannot be concealed forever, which is why the pulp fiction cover story is being walked back.

But the spin is still on, with Leon Panetta, for example, now saying that ““We always assume from the beginning that the likelihood was that he was going to be killed”--a bizarre sentence evidently constructed to finesse the fact that it was not a matter of “assume” but “intend”. And Jay Carney is still trying to peddle the notion that OBL, though unarmed, nonetheless offered resistance that required him to be shot in the head. Sure, one lame man in his 50s against only several dozen of America’s best of the best fighting forces--what other choice could they have had but to shoot him dead? Will we next bed told that he was a shaolin master.

The crucial question remains, What did OBL know that decided our government to kill him to prevent him from revealing--despite all the obvious harms that his not being taken alive would cause to our intelligence gathering and national security?

No doubt, the next cover story is going to involve intimating that we killed him as part of deal with Pakistan to prevent him from revealing the specifics of his ties to their military intelligence service, but that is obviously just the tip of the iceberg, something already obvious.

Will you please focus now on uncovering the crucial info that OBL had, which our government executed him to keep from revealing?

May. 04 2011 10:02 AM

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