For quite some time now, there have been serious questions about how how the US was able to track down Osama bin Laden's "hiding place" to send in special forces to kill him. The story many people have heard was that the CIA was able to identify the "courier" who was used to help bin Laden communicate with the outside world, and then used that info to figure out where he was. And, a big part of that story -- especially as immortalized in the movie Zero Dark Thirty
-- was that the CIA's torture program was instrumental in revealing that information. However, even before the big Senate Intelligence Committee study on the torture program was released, it was revealed that the torture program had nothing
to do with identifying the courier, known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
However, as you may have heard over the weekend, Seymour Hersh published a somewhat epic story, arguing that almost everything about the bin Laden killing was a lie
, and a bunch of stories -- including everything about al-Kuwaiti -- were made up after the fact. Hersh's story is well worth reading (as are some of the criticisms of it that question some of the details). But one key aspect of the report is that finding a courier had absolutely nothing to do with finding bin Laden. Instead, it was a so-called "walk in" -- a Pakistani intelligence official who knew that Pakistan already had captured bin Laden -- who reached out to the US, seeking the $25 million reward for information leading to bin Laden's whereabouts.
In other words, even the Senate's torture report gets the story wrong completely. In the Senate report, the identifying of al-Kuwaiti came from traditional interrogation, rather than the torture part. The CIA's response was basically that it was the torture part (the bad cop) that enabled the information to come out separately (good cop). But Hersh's report says the whole courier story is made up whole cloth. While some have questioned the details of Hersh's report, there's now independent verification from other sources to NBC that bin Laden was actually found via a "walk-in," rather than the courier
(warning: stupid NBC autoplay video at that link).
In Hersh's version, the plan had been to kill bin Laden, and later (perhaps weeks later) come up with a story saying bin Laden had been killed by a drone strike. A few things went wrong -- including one of the US helicopters famously crashing, and there was enough buzz that the US rushed to publicly announce the killing, including Obama's famous speech that, apparently, created havoc since it messed up a bunch of previously agreed to things about how the killing would be presented, and was done without first clearing it with the intelligence community. This resulted in the CIA being rushed in to concoct some cover stories, and some CIA officials quickly realized that this would be a fantastic way to pretend that torture had been useful:
Gates also objected to the idea, pushed by Brennan and Leon Panetta, that US intelligence had learned of bin Laden’s whereabouts from information acquired by waterboarding and other forms of torture. ‘All of this is going on as the Seals are flying home from their mission. The agency guys know the whole story,’ the retired official said. ‘It was a group of annuitants who did it.’ (Annuitants are retired CIA officers who remain active on contract.) ‘They had been called in by some of the mission planners in the agency to help with the cover story. So the old-timers come in and say why not admit that we got some of the information about bin Laden from enhanced interrogation?’ At the time, there was still talk in Washington about the possible prosecution of CIA agents who had conducted torture.
‘Gates told them this was not going to work,’ the retired official said. ‘He was never on the team. He knew at the eleventh hour of his career not to be a party to this nonsense. But State, the agency and the Pentagon had bought in on the cover story. None of the Seals thought that Obama was going to get on national TV and announce the raid. The Special Forces command was apoplectic. They prided themselves on keeping operational security.’ There was fear in Special Operations, the retired official said, that ‘if the true story of the missions leaked out, the White House bureaucracy was going to blame it on the Seals.’
In Hersh's version of the story... the courier never even existed (bin Laden was actually pretty cut off from everything). He also notes that there was no firefight at the compound, since the Pakistanis had planned out the whole thing and made sure that no one was guarding bin Laden. But the US made up the idea of a firefight so that it could "kill off" the courier, al-Kuwaiti, who never really existed:
There was another reason to claim there had been a firefight inside the compound, the retired official said: to avoid the inevitable question that would arise from an uncontested assault. Where were bin Laden’s guards? Surely, the most sought-after terrorist in the world would have around-the-clock protection. ‘And one of those killed had to be the courier, because he didn’t exist and we couldn’t produce him. The Pakistanis had no choice but to play along with it.’
In other words, if true, not only did the torture not produce the courier, there was no courier
at all. And the whole debate about whether or not Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Hassan Ghul gave up information on al-Kuwaiti during torture efforts or during regular interrogations is entirely meaningless. The whole thing was fiction, invented after the fact. For what it's worth, there were other stories concerning the torture program that seem equally bizarre in retrospect, if Hersh's story is true. Take this Daily Beast article about al-Kuwaiti, in which it claims that one guy was interrogated, and denied ever hearing of al-Kuwaiti:
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, detainees told CIA interrogators about an especially important courier who went by the name Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti. A series of subsequent interrogations, including one of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, confirmed the courier's importance. In 2004, al Qaeda operative Hassan Ghul revealed that the courier was close to Faraj al-Libi, who replaced Mohammed as al Qaeda's operational commander after Mohammed's arrest. A year later, al-Libi himself was captured, and he protested so adamantly that he'd never heard of al-Kuwaiti that the CIA took it as further evidence that he was their man.
Either way, the idea that torture had anything to do with anything is growing progressively weaker... and yet, we still have people defending the torture program, and no one is ever likely to be punished legally for it.