The Fight Over The Hunt For Bin Laden

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The release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report into the Central Intelligence Agency’s enhanced interrogation program is rekindling the fight over the use of controversial tactics in the hunt for 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, even as it sheds new light on the hunt for the al Qaeda leader.

The long-delayed Senate report cast doubts on CIA assertions after the 2011 killing of bin Laden that the interrogation program yielded vital information leading to the identification of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad ai-Kuwaiti, who was killed with the al Qaeda leader by SEAL Team Six operators during the Abbottabad raid.

“A review of CIA records found that the initial intelligence obtained, as well as the information the CIA identified as the most critical—or the most valuable—on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, was not related to the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” the committee report states. It argues that detainees didn’t begin to provide information on Abu Ahmad until 2003, a year after he had already been made a target of the intelligence agency based off the interrogations of detainees held by foreign governments, and was tracking his phone number and email address. The Committee adds that the CIA either misled or misstated the importance of enhanced interrogation program results in testimony to lawmakers following the bin Laden raid, including claiming the EIT program was successful for detainees before they were even in the agency’s custody.

But in its formal response to the Senate report, the CIA contends that the report overstates the importance of the intelligence possessed by the agency before the use of the tactics. “That intelligence was insufficient to distinguish Abu Ahmad from many other Bin Ladin associates until additional information from detainees put it into context and allowed us to better understand his true role and potential in the hunt for Bin Ladin,” the agency said of the pre-2003 intelligence.

One detainee, Hassan Gul, “was subjected to continuous sleep deprivation, facial holds, attention grasps, facial slaps, stress positions, and walling, until he experienced auditory and visual hallucinations.” The other was Ammar al-Baluchi, who was also subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. The CIA claims that Ammar was the first to let on Abu Ahmad’s role as a courier for bin Laden. “Before that, we had only general information [redacted] that Abu Ahmad had interacted with Bin Ladin before the group’s retreat from Tora Bora, Afghanistan in late 2001, when Bin Ladin was relatively accessible to a number of al-Qa’ida figures,” the agency writes.

Gul, the agency said, speculated before being subjected to EITs that Abu Ahmad could be one of three individuals with bin Laden. After subjection to the tactics, he said Abu Ahmad has specifically carried a letter from bin Laden in late 2003, and that he had disappeared in late 2002.

However, both reports concur that EITs did not lead to accurate information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, believed to be the key architect of the 9/11 attacks, or Abu Faraj al-Libbi.
Despite undergoing more than 180 waterboardings, Mohammed lied about Abu Ahmad’s role in the al Qaeda organization to interrogators, while Abu Faraj denied knowing him at all, despite Ammar claiming he was the recipient of the letter from bin Laden through Abu Ahmad.

The CIA maintains it is impossible to know in hindsight whether it could have acquired the intelligence from Ammar, Gul, and others without the use of enhanced interrogation techniques or from other sources. But it maintains that “the information we did obtain from these detainees played a role-in combination with other important streams of intelligence-in finding the al-Qa’ida leader.”

Indeed, by all accounts, recognizing Abu Ahmad’s role in the al Qaeda organization led CIA analysts on the path to identifying the compound where bin Laden and his family were hiding in Pakistan. The perhaps unanswerable question is how they got there.

Read the Senate’s accounting of the intelligence leading to the identification of Abu Ahmad.

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Read the CIA’s accounting of the intelligence leading to the identification of Abu Ahmad.

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