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Role of Torture in Finding Bin Laden: What We Actually Know

Here's a closer look at what we know and who’s saying what about the role of torture in the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.

If you’ve been following the latest news on the U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden, you’ve probably read a lot of conflicting accounts. There have been questions about the circumstances in which bin Laden was shot, whether he used his wife as a human shield, and even minor details such as the height of the walls around bin Laden's compound have varied widely in the news coverage.

“I apologize. Even I’m getting confused,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said during yesterday’s press briefing when asked by reporters to clarify discrepancies in the story of the raid.

The Guardian has helpfully laid out a number of areas in which the narrative of bin Laden’s death has been corrected or has evolved. One of the areas it doesn’t mention is whether enhanced interrogation techniques helped produce the intelligence that led to bin Laden—a subject that many politicians and officials seemed to have already seized on to support their own policy positions. Here's a closer look at what we know and who’s saying what.

In dispute: Whether “enhanced interrogation” techniques—banned by the Obama administration but approved under Bush—helped the U.S. obtain intelligence from detainees that ultimately led to bin Laden.

Who said what: The former head of counterterrorism at the CIA told Time that tips given by Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and another detainee were “the lead information that eventually led to the location of [bin Laden’s] compound and the operation that led to his death.” Both of those sources, he said, were held at secret CIA prisons and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.

Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s defense secretary, has also made the argument that waterboarding played a crucial role in obtaining the intelligence. “Anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques, let's be blunt, waterboarding, did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence, just isn't facing the truth,” he said in an appearance on Fox News.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has also said that it “wouldn’t be surprising” if the intelligence used to find bin Laden had been obtained through the Bush-authorized techniques.

Asked directly about enhanced interrogation, the White House has danced around the question. Take this exchange from yesterday’s press briefing:

Q: Were any results of such techniques used in helping to track down bin Laden?

MR. CARNEY: Mark, the fact is that no single piece of information led to the successful mission that occurred on Sunday, and multiple detainees provided insights into the networks of people who might have been close to bin Laden. But reporting from detainees was just a slice of the information that has been gathered by incredibly diligent professionals over the years in the intelligence community. And it simply strains credulity to suggest that a piece of information that may or may not have been gathered eight years ago somehow directly led to a successful mission on Sunday. That’s just not the case.

Asked the same question again at today’s briefing, Carney said, “The work that was done was primarily by analysts gathering tiny bits of information, putting it together, and creating a body of work that led to the finding of a location where Osama bin Laden was hiding.”

What we know now: It’s a stretch at this point to draw conclusions about the role that enhanced interrogation techniques played in producing useful intelligence leading to bin Laden. Here’s why.

First, with the exception of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, it’s uncertain what kind of techniques were used on the other detainees who gave up information on bin Laden’s courier, reports the New York Times.

Second, KSM, who was waterboarded nearly 200 times, wasn’t forthright with interrogators, who in fact found him valuable because they saw through his attempt to steer them away from bin Laden’s courier. The same was true for the other CIA detainee, who may also have been subjected to brutal interrogation techniques—the CIA says he was not waterboarded—during his detention.

And third, as we noted yesterday, an official told the Associated Press that the information KSM gave up about the courier was not obtained during waterboarding but under standard interrogation. The Times also reported that the first time KSM was asked about the courier was months after he was waterboarded.

Related: For a rundown of the basics on the death of bin Laden, see our reading guide to help cut through some of the confusing coverage.

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