Many in the chattering class are crowing about last weekend’s spectacular raid in Pakistan as if it’s an exclusive political victory for President Obama. The current administration does deserve a great deal of praise for planning and directing the successful operation. The plan took political courage: it involved an unannounced incursion into the sovereign territory of a nominal US ally, and it put dozens of elite American warriors’ lives in peril. A bombing or a drone strike would have been far less risky – but it also may have left unsettled the question of whether our top target had been dispatched. The job needed to be done the hard way, and Obama saw it through. Bravo.
Seeking to score cheap political points, some on the left have bragged that Obama did the job Bush was unable to do. This is an unfair, unseemly, and inaccurate attack. In the narrowest sense, yes, the mission was undeniably carried out on Obama’s watch, but evidence continues to mount that it could not have occurred without crucial intelligence gleaned through policies enacted by the Bush administration after September 11, 2001. Specifically, Osama bin Laden was found because the United States military exploited actionable intelligence extracted by subjecting terrorists to enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) in secret CIA prisons, by questioning enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, and by capturing a top al Qaeda source in Iraq.
As long as some liberals remain intent on keeping political score, it must be pointed out that all three sources of these indispensible data points were direct or indirect results of Bush policies – EITs, Gitmo, and the Iraq war – that much of the American Left, including Barack Obama, fought tooth and nail.
We now know the critical key to unlocking the frustrating secret of bin Laden’s whereabouts was identifying and tracking one of his must trusted couriers and confidants. US intelligence and military officials learned of his existence and pseudonym in the years after 9/11 from a terrorist detained at Guantanamo Bay, Muhammad Mani al-Qahtani. Equipped with this information, interrogators were able to wring supplemental information from two high-value prisoners being held at the time in black site CIA prisons: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of the 9/11 plot, and his radical colleague, Abu Faraj al-Libi. This single piece of information, after years of scrutiny and investigation, would be bin Laden’s undoing.
When the American media revealed that the CIA was operating secret prisons during the Bush administration, the Left professed shock and indignation. They spent years demonizing and persecuting American intelligence operatives for engaging in “torture,” insisting that harsh interrogation techniques were an affront to “our values,” and – besides – they didn’t even work. Multiple public opinion polls taken over the last decade have shown, despite the Left’s protestations, the American people aren’t scandalized. US voters overwhelmingly support the limited use of harsh questioning tactics to prevent terrorist attacks on US soil – even when the loaded term “torture” is included in the question.
One such technique is waterboarding, a process employed against exactly three terrorists, and halted altogether in 2003. Waterboarding is widely acknowledged to have broken KSM, who had shown himself to be a hardened and skilled resistor of traditional interrogation methods. Information extracted from KSM disrupted active terror plots, saved innocent lives, and led to the capture or killing of other al Qaeda leaders. But was any of the intelligence related to bin Laden’s courier a direct result of waterboarding? NBC anchor Brian Williams put that question to President Obama’s CIA director, Leon Panetta, in an interview on Tuesday:
WILLIAMS: Can you confirm that it was as a result of waterboarding that we learned what we needed to learn to go after Bin Laden?
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.
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 waterboarding?
PANETTA: That's correct.
In other words, waterboarding KSM and others may or may not have produced direct information about the identity bin Laden’s courier, but the use of coercive interrogation methods were instrumental in gathering additional strands of intelligence from certain detainees. That waterboarding cracked KSM’s resistance cannot be ignored in this context.
But the mere knowledge that an unidentified bin Laden lackey was roaming the planet under an assumed name was not nearly enough to nail him down or monitor his communication. That imperative piece of the puzzle fell into place after 2004, when the US captured a terrorist operative named Hassan Ghul. Ghul was a key member of Al Qaeda in Iraq, an entity whose very existence many liberals were reluctant to even acknowledge, based on a zealous adherence to the faulty premise that the Iraq war was untethered to our fight against al Qaeda. Ghul was detained in Iraq and shipped off to Pakistan for intense CIA questioning; he eventually provided the true name of bin Laden’s elusive courier: Sheik Abu Ahmed, a.k.a. Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Officials have described this morsel of intelligence as the “linchpin” of the bin Laden mission. US spies monitored al-Kuwaiti for several years. A lone phone call in 2010 eventually led them to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
This web of intelligence – as sketchy, painstaking, and complex as it may be – is extraordinary: Al-Kuwaiti’s existence was flagged by at least one Guantanamo Bay detainee, his role and pseudonym were confirmed by KSM and al-Libi, and his true identity was spilled by an Al Qaeda terrorist operating in Iraq.
Barack Obama ran for president, in large measure, as the anti-Bush. He was a prominent opponent of the war in Iraq. He promised to shutter the Guantanamo Bay prison. He pledged to ban certain EITs. Today, as president, he is rightfully receiving praise from virtually all quarters for his decisive order to take out the most wanted man in the world. Obama, his supporters, and indeed all Americans have every reason to celebrate that accomplishment. But they must also recognize and appreciate that actions and policies implemented by President Bush, often in the face of searing partisan criticism, played an inextricable role in identifying the dots that were finally connected and acted upon last weekend.