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Column: Bin-Laden Raid Proved That Torture Sometimes Works

John Kenneth Galbraith once observed that “the enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.” And events have finally caught up with the oft-repeated claim that torture doesn’t work and that it especially didn’t work in tracking down Osama bin Laden.

The more journalists probe into the hunt that ended in bin Laden’s death at the hands of a Navy SEAL team a year ago, the more apparent it is that the first clues leading to his Pakistan hideout were beaten and bullied out of captured al-Qaida members.

Two books published last year — Peter L. Bergen’s Manhunt and Mark Bowden’s The Finish — were the first to suggest that the trail to bin Laden began with information obtained with what the CIA euphemistically refers to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And now a TV documentary based on Manhunt, which includes on-the-record interviews with several members of the CIA team that hunted bin Laden, is airing on HBO.

The basic tale is well-known: Hiding away from surveillance in a Pakistani compound that had neither telephone nor Internet service, bin Laden was tracked down only after the CIA identified and followed a courier known as Ahmed the Kuwaiti, who carried his messages to and from al-Qaida.

The question has always been, where did the CIA learn the identity of that courier? And the answer, we now know, is from victims of some of the most brutal interrogations of the CIA and its allies.

The first mention of Ahmed the Kuwaiti came from a young al-Qaida member held at Guantanamo named Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Slahi, before giving up the name, was tortured so grievously — beaten, deprived of sleep, exposed to extreme heat and cold, and threatened with the arrest of his mother — that the U.S. Marine colonel assigned to prosecute his case before a military commission quit.

Slahi didn’t offer much more about Ahmed the Kuwaiti except that he existed. (Or had — Slahi thought he was dead.) But the next Guantanamo prisoner to talk offered much more: that Ahmed was a member of bin Laden’s inner circle and sometimes functioned as his courier. That disclosure came after the prisoner, al-Qaida militant Mohammed al-Qahtani, was interrogated 20 hours a day for 48 straight days, subjected to a mock execution, forced to perform dog tricks, drugged and given enemas until he hallucinated. His treatment was so brutal that the Pentagon decided it couldn’t prosecute him, even though he was scheduled to be one of the hijackers on Sept. 11.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, also confessed to knowing Ahmed the Kuwaiti at some point during the 183 waterboardings given him by U.S. interrogators. But Mohammed insisted that Ahmed was an unimportant member of al-Qaida and had left the group years before. The CIA knew he was lying — by that time, Ahmed the Kuwaiti’s senior status in al-Qaida had been widely confirmed — but found the attempted deceit even more interesting than the truth. They must be getting close to something important, the CIA trackers concluded.

Ahmed the Kuwaiti’s real name — Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed — was finally supplied in 2004 by a bin Laden aide caught slipping into Kurdish territory with bomb-making documents. In the TV documentary Manhunt, one of the CIA’s trackers is asked what the Kurds did to make the aide, Hassan Ghul, talk. She just offers a sly smile that slowly broadens in a Cheshire-cat grin.

Once the CIA had Ahmed the Kuwaiti’s real name, it was able to zero in on his cellphone, his vehicle and the Pakistani compound where he lived with a tall, mostly unseen man who would eventually prove to be bin Laden — a process that took an additional seven years. Torture may not have led U.S. forces right to bin Laden’s front door, but it surely pointed the way to the first steps.

Many Americans imagine torture as a kind of replay of some old drive-in movie where a fat redneck sheriff sticks a gun in a long-haired kid’s ear and shouts, “Admit it! Admit it!” And sometimes that is no doubt accurate. I’ve certainly never been able to figure out what the soldiers at Abu Ghraib hoped to learn from their random torment of luckless peasants.

But in the world of intelligence, interrogations are aimed at eliciting information rather than confessions of guilt. The bits of data, once verified, are pieced together with others — electronic intercepts, credit card receipts, surveillance reports — into a mosaic that reveals a bigger, hidden, picture.

Does the fact that torture helped us find bin Laden mean that it’s just one more tool to pack into our bags? Not at all. There are plenty of good arguments against the use of torture. Employed regularly, it’s bound to claim some innocent victims.

And it surely is not good for either the soul of the person doing the torturing or those in whose name he does it. But these are moral questions. As long as we pretend that the question of torture is a utilitarian one — that it doesn’t work — we will never confront its morality.

Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald.