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OPINION

Were the Interrogations That Led to Bin Laden's Capture "Enhanced"?

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Like the accounts of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the narrative of whether enhanced interrogation helped find him has top figures contradicting one another.
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Former attorney general Michael B. Mukasey, under fire from Sen. John McCain for his description of the events that uncovered the name of bin Laden's courier, did not back down Monday at an AEI panel from his description of how the information was obtained. Mukasey said the fact is Khalid Sheik Muhammed underwent enhanced interrogation, and after undergoing enhanced interrogation, he mentioned the courier's nickname and also the false information that the courier had left al Qaeda. The CIA, when they went back and checked their files, found the name already mentioned, but the information was insignificant, Mukasey said, until it came from KSM himself. When the CIA later matched the information that the courier had left al Qaeda with newer developments, it became clear that KSM was covering for him, another "very significant" fact, according to Mukasey.

Last week, however, Sen. McCain declared, and quoted CIA Director Leon Panetta, that the name of the courier who led the United States to Osama bin Laden was not learned as a result of waterboarding or any enhanced interrogation technique in U.S. custody. The information was part of a broader point McCain made that the United States should not engage in enhanced interrogation.

"All we learned about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti [the courier] through the use of waterboarding and other ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ against Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the confirmation of the already known fact that the courier existed and used an alias," McCain said. “I have sought further information from the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and they confirm for me that, in fact, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee – information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti's real role in Al-Qaeda and his true relationship to Osama bin Laden – was obtained through standard, non-coercive means, not through any ‘enhanced interrogation technique.’"

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But Mukasey's fellow panelist, Marc Thiessen, provided further clarification, stating that the report McCain referred to was, in fact, only discovered after CIA detainees coughed up the name and the CIA did a "deep dive" into their analysis to find any information they might already have on this person. But the report, when they found it, remained insignificant, since it contributed nothing new to what the CIA had already learned from its own interrogations.

The hinge point seems to be a misrepresentation of how enhanced interrogation works: it's is not used to obtain information at the moment of interrogation, explained Thiessen. It's used on uncooperative detainees to make them cooperative. KSM, in fact, would taunt his interrogators while being waterboarded--since he knew they could only perform the process for a certain amount of time--by counting the seconds on his hands, according to Thiessen.

Questions are then asked of the detainee that CIA knows the answers to. When it's determined the detainee is finally getting truthful, EIT stops, the detainee goes into standard interrogation, and there the questioning resumes. Thiessen also emphasized that EIT is effective, but it's not a truth serum (which is, in fact, illegal and therefore is not used during enhanced interrogations, Mukasey volunteered), so it's not surprising that KSM gave false information along with legitimate items.

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Thiessen also unequivocally states that the EIT program was not torture, and Mukasey vouches that the program did not violate the torture statute. Waterboarding itself is not designed to cause pain. It simply heightens the level of CO2 in the blood, and is thus designed to cause panic.

Other panelists at the AEI event were less clear. John Rizzo, former acting general counsel of the CIA, said he didn't think there could be any real, factual argument that the program yielded huge benefits in terms of intelligence, but he also said that what the administration has in place now doesn't "come close" to producing the kind of intelligence the previous program produced.

What the administration has in place now, described fellow panelist Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First, is a high-value interrogation group which includes representatives from the FBI, CIA, and the military. Obama ended enhanced interrogation techniques when he became president.

Thiessen said one of the most important elements of any program handling detainees and interrogations going forward is making sure terrorists don't know what techniques the U.S. uses so they can't train for resistance to it. He said it could be as simple as a blank page annexed to the Army field manual, as long as it's classified. It's the element of the unknown that helps make the program successful.

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Mukasey recommended an interrogation program that was lawful, classified, and run by the CIA, although Rizzo was hesitant to have the CIA in charge of the interrogation because of the backlash it's taken in the past. He said the men and women of the agency deserved a consistent policy with adequate legal authority.

Mukasey also wants a consistent policy on detainees, and he wants a solution other than civilian courts and military commissions for which to try detainees.

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