Journalism in the Public Interest

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


Pakistani security personnel measure a wall outside the hideout house of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his death by U.S. Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad on May 3, 2011. (Aamir QureshiI/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Why didn’t you mentioned that Rumsfeld totally flipped flopped on this topic?

See this:

James Starowicz

May 4, 2011, 5:10 p.m.

Restoring ‘America’s Honor’ means living by ours and those international
Laws we helped write, that means Torture is Illegal and Inhumane, any
torture not just water boarding, which by the way is Not a fun
experience, just ask any of us who’ve gone through CI/SERE training,
that’s why they use it in the training.
Those who support torture or are now arguing, especially from the previous administration and their propaganda channel FOX, the false meme’s that it was the way we got bin Laden have joined the ranks of those we’ve condemned for decades that do and the previous administration is known to have used in their extremely failed policies. You also have taken away any condemnation if our Soldiers are Captured or citizens grabbed and they are then tortured, you also are a very sick human individual. Those who do the torture tend to start enjoying what they’re doing which moves them to the extreme of the human community!

We’ve created the next generations of bin Ladens during the past decade!

And to those trying to cram their extremist constantly changing religious beliefs down our throats, i.e. a ‘christian’ nation, i.e. especially protestants who claim they follow the teachings of Jesus alone, and praise torture, just think? of the beatings, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross and the nailing to that cross to slowly die, All Torture! That worked well for the Romans now didn’t it!!!!!

I saw Rumsfeld’s earlier and later comments but thought it was sufficiently clear that his earlier comments were referring to intelligence obtained from interrogation at Guantanamo, and not intelligence obtained from interrogation at CIA’s black sites.

He makes it pretty clear in the Hannity interview that he believes the CIA’s black sites, enhanced interrogation, and rendition deserve credit. I wouldn’t call it a flip-flop.

Steve Zimmett

May 4, 2011, 5:36 p.m.

I saw a program this morning, Democracy Now with Amy Goodman. She had Matthew Alexander, a previous senior military interrogator ,  and who wrote the book Kill OR Capture and he noted that water boarding is not an effective way to get information from a suspected terrorist.
Another Fox piece of s***.

Look at NBC Nightly News from last night - Brian Williams interviewing Leon Panetta.  Panetta says acknowledges that some of the sources were waterboarded.  But essentially says that there was similar information from multiple sources where not all were waterboarded..

On the role of interrogation:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Can you confirm that it was as a result of water boarding that we learned what we needed to learn to go after Bin Laden?
LEON PANETTA: Brian, in the intelligence business you work from a lot of sources of information and that was true here… It’s a little difficult to say it was due just to one source of information that we got… I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I’m also saying that, you know, the debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going to be an open question.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: So finer point, one final time, enhanced interrogation techniques—which has always been kind of a handy euphemism in these post-9/11 years—that includes water boarding?
LEON PANETTA: That’s correct.

If another reporter isn’t assigned to this subject, then I can only assume this publications’ willful ignorance and tacit complicity in this cover-up is deliberate, intended to keep to the same lies of the State Department’s press releases. it’s very clear Wang has very little grasp of the historical narrative relating to this subject.
House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger would be a good start.

Otherwise, your byline is relegated to my trash bin.


If you read about Jesus in the bible you know that the persons around him killed him to know(curisity) if he will reborn; so all the persons participated to that assassination

This time is the same, a thirsty by notguilty bloody.CIA created the ettentat at 9/11 they covered their participation whith a whisper: was bin the orher whisper : any country participated to this murder

for the isolated cases next time : is about corruption in entertainment, a game about psychological torture with some words and some decisions

The issue is that we assume that there is a firm belief in a Bill of
Rights, A Declaration of Human Rights,a Geneva Convention,and other conventions to protect civilians in a civil society by its avowed enemies.
There isn’t.
So extraordinary measures must be taken to try and insure civil society
from those that seek to impose total chaos in all the known ways,means,and rules that make civilized society possible.
Civilization has its costs.

I expected no less from Rumsfeld, Cheney nor Fox.I guess since Beck is leaving so there will be no more allocated funds for additional blackboards so he’ll not be able to explain it.

James B Storer

May 5, 2011, 11:11 a.m.

This is a very timely topic for present circumstances.  Personally, I find even mild torture distasteful.  Additionally, the consistent use of torture for a real purpose eventually turns into the routine use of torture as a pastime purely for torture’s sake.
  During the Iraq invasion serious torture was capriciously and inappropriately used and made public in the Abu Ghraib prison tragedy.  Regardless the motivation, of this and the renditions program, were very serious matters, and responsibly is rightfully laid at the feet of the Bush administration.
  The problem now is that the killing of bin Laden will reopen chatter about the effectiveness of torture as a military tool.  The Republican party (and rightfully so) took a lot of heat over the practice, while public consensus seemed to gravitate toward the view that torture was morally and ethically wrong, and not in the best interest of the reputation of our nation.  Thus, much effort will now be expended in uncovering instances of torture as being instrumental in the tracking down of Bin Laden.
Even one bona fide example will tend to justify the use of torture during the 911- Iraq- Afghanistan operation.  This may well be an important campaign point in the coming elections and may eventually be looked at again by (horrors) the Supreme Court.
Skartishu, Granby MO

When I look at the countless people that jumped out of these buildings and those who helped crash a plane that would have caused a lot more innocent people to loose their lives and the more then 3000 people who lost their lives on 911, I come to the conclusion that do what you need to do to bring these people to justice. We have too many people in this country that don’t have a clue! Who cares Bin Laden is dead and not doing harm. That is what counts.

If torture was a plus in the death of Osama bin Laden
Why did it take 9 years to happen?
This is not a reasonable statement the torture
had a reasonable role in finding bin Laden!


The “Bill of Rights” applies to US citizens. I figure that all of you liberals are lucky to have them as you would have been shot or imprisoned for your comments in many of the countries in the world. How long these technics take is irrelevant, the fact is another mass killer is dead. Case closed. Smoke em while you got em!

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