Harsh Interrogation Tactics: Did They Work?

May 4, 2011

Finding Osama bin Laden has been the holy grail of U.S. intelligence for the past 10 years. For half of that time, an argument has raged over how far the U.S. government should go to get information out of members of al-Qaida.

The U.S. government stopped using enhanced interrogation techniques like simulated drowning, or waterboarding, on terrorism suspects years ago.

Now, former Bush administration officials say those harsh tactics led the U.S. military to bin Laden's hideout; the Obama White House says it's not so simple.

Room For Interpretation

Intelligence leaders briefed Congress this week about their biggest breakthrough — finding bin Laden's trusted courier, who led them to bin Laden himself.

"Initial information about the courier came from Khalid Sheik Mohammed after waterboarding," said New York Republican Peter King, who leads the House Homeland Security Committee.

Waterboarding, also known as simulated drowning, is the most controversial of the interrogation techniques President Obama banned when he took office.

But California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, also got a CIA briefing this week and came away with a completely different conclusion.

"To the best of our knowledge, based on a look," she said, "none of [the intelligence] came as a result of harsh interrogation practices."

When it comes to practices that some people liken to torture, there's a lot of room for political interpretation.

U.S. intelligence officials say they did glean early leads from detainees who were subjected to harsh interrogation at secret CIA prisons. Those detainees gave up the pseudonym of bin Laden's courier.

But it took much more work to find the courier's real name, and years later, to find bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan. Analysts put together clues from all kinds of sources — an intercepted phone call, a license plate number and satellite photos.

White House spokesman Jay Carney says it's unfair to single out information from detainees as the breakthrough.

"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," he said.

A Question Without An Answer?

That hasn't put an end to the political debate, though. Two members of the Bush administration who had key roles in harsh interrogations emerged this week to say those tough methods worked: John Yoo, who wrote the memos during the Bush administration that gave a green light to harsh interrogations; and Jose Rodriguez, who led the clandestine unit at the CIA at the time.

But Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union says those men have an agenda. "The people who are pushing this narrative are the ones who have the most to gain if it takes hold, and the most to lose if the ongoing criminal investigation of that program continues," he said.

That investigation is a Justice Department inquiry into whether anyone connected to the interrogation program went outside the law to get information out of terrorism suspects.

"No one has ever argued that intelligence can't be extracted through brutality," Wizner says, "only that brutality is much less effective than humane interrogation."

When the harsh methods used on a small number of high-value terrorism suspects finally came to light years ago, they horrified military and human rights groups who said the tactics violated the Geneva Conventions.

Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who's also a U.S. military lawyer, remembered that reaction at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

"I'm sure there was some information gleaned from waterboarding," he said, "but overall, the reason we stopped this practice is because it was causing a lot of problems for the country."

And it's still causing problems. As CIA Director Leon Panetta told NBC's Brian Williams: "The debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches, I think, is always going to be an open question." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.