The CIA says torture helped the United States find Osama bin Laden, but the Senate says it made the search even harder.
- By Yochi Dreazen
Yochi Dreazen is a Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy. He is also writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security. His book about military suicide was published by Random House's Crown division in 2014.
Prior to joining Foreign Policy, Dreazen was a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the senior national security correspondent for National Journal. He began his career at the Wall Street Journal and spent 11 years at the newspaper, most recently as its military correspondent. He was born in Chicago, and later attended the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, he edited the award-winning daily campus newspaper and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1999 with degrees in History and English. He was hired by the Wall Street Journal immediately after graduation. Dreazen arrived in Iraq in April 2003 with the Fourth Infantry Division, and spent the next two years living in Baghdad as the Wall Street Journal's main Iraq correspondent.
Dreazen has made more than 12 lengthy trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and has spent a total of nearly four years on the ground in the two countries, mostly doing front-line combat embeds. He has reported from more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Israel, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
In 2010, Dreazen received the Military Reporters & Editors association’s top award for domestic military reporting in a large publication for a series of articles about military suicide and the psychological traumas impacting veterans of the two long wars. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Tablet and the New Republic and he appears regularly on TV and radio programs such as NPR's Diane Rehm Show and PBS' Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Dreazen gives frequent lectures about journalism, the wars and current events to both civilian and military audiences.
Dreazen lives in Washington with his wife, Annie Rosenzweig Dreazen, and their beloved Golden Retriever, Charlie.
The CIA has insisted for years that Osama bin Laden was tracked and ultimately killed based on information gleaned from the spy agency’s brutal interrogations of al Qaeda operatives detained at black sites around the world. The Senate’s torture report is now bluntly asserting that the CIA lied. The information that led to bin Laden’s death, the report concludes, was obtained from militants long before they were first tortured by the CIA.
The 500-page executive summary of the five-year, $40 million Senate investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program asserts that the spy agency exaggerated its effectiveness, misled the Bush administration and Capitol Hill about the specifics of what was done to detainees by American agents, and used interrogation methods — including placing a whirling power drill close to the body of a detainee — that were far more brutal than has previously been known.
A footnote buried deep in the report, meanwhile, suggests that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s public case for the invasion of Iraq drew on false information that a detainee told his interrogators to end his brutalization at their hands. The report says that a Libyan national named Ibn Shaykh al-Libi was detained in an unnamed country and tortured by its intelligence operatives. While in their custody, Libi reported that “Iraq was supporting al-Qa’ida and providing assistance with chemical and biological weapons,” according to the report. Some of that information made it into the infamous — and entirely incorrect — speech that Powell made at the U.N. to justify the Iraq War. The report says that Libi “recanted the claim after he was rendered to CIA custody … claiming that he had been tortured … and only told them what he assessed they wanted to hear.”
Still, the report’s section on the CIA’s public claims about the bin Laden raid is among its most explosive because it directly undercuts the agency’s explanations for how it carried out one of the biggest intelligence coups in its history.
The spy agency has said for years that it found bin Laden by carefully tracking the movements of a trusted bin Laden courier named Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti. The courier, according to the CIA, was identified based on information gleaned from detainees subjected to a variety of brutal interrogation methods, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation. The Senate report flatly rejects that assertion.
“The vast majority of the intelligence acquired on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti was originally acquired from sources unrelated to the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, and the most accurate information acquired from a CIA detainee was provided prior to the CIA subjecting the detainee to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” the report concludes.
Detainees who were tortured, the report continues, “provided fabricated, inconsistent, and generally unreliable information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti throughout their detention.”
The dispute revolves around a militant named Hassan Ghul, who was captured by Kurdish authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan in January 2004 and ultimately turned over to the CIA. The spy agency has long maintained that Ghul only shared important details about Kuwaiti after being tortured by agency operatives.
Not so, says the Senate probe. Instead, the report concludes that Ghul had been providing valuable intelligence long before CIA interrogators subjected him to the worst of their abuses. In a CIA inspector general report cited in the report, a CIA operative who had been involved in Ghul’s initial questioning said that he gave them enough information for 21 separate reports and “sang like a tweetie bird. He opened up right away and was cooperative from the outset.”
His cooperation didn’t prevent the CIA from shifting Ghul from the detention site where he was initially questioned, code-named COBALT, to an agency black site code-named BLACK. That, according to the report, is where his suffering truly started.
When he arrived at BLACK, agency operatives stripped him, shaved off his beard and hair, and forced him to stand against a wall with his hands held uncomfortably over his head. The interrogators asked the agency for permission to subject him to even harsher treatment.
“[The] interrogation team believes, based on [Hassan Ghul’s] reaction to the initial contact, that his al-Qa’ida briefings and his earlier experiences with U.S. military interrogators have convinced him there are limits to the physical contact interrogators can have with him,” according to a CIA memo cited in the report. “The interrogation team believes the approval and employment of enhanced measures should sufficiently shift [Hassan Ghul’s] paradigm of what he expects to happen.”
Senior agency officials signed off, and agency interrogators kept Ghul awake for 59 hours straight while refusing to allow him to see a doctor after he complained of severe back pain. He began to hallucinate, according to the report, but the sleep deprivation continued. A CIA medical staffer later said that the refusal to provide Ghul with prompt medical attention left him experiencing “notable physiological fatigue,” including abdominal and back muscle pain/spasm, ‘heaviness’ and mild paralysis of arms, legs and feet [that] are secondary to his hanging position and extreme degree of sleep deprivation.”
Senate investigators say that Ghul, despite the torture, “provided no actionable threat information” or useful intelligence on Kuwaiti, the bin Laden courier. Ghul was released in 2006 and was later killed in an American drone strike.
In its formal response to the probe, the CIA acknowledged that Ghul was initially cooperative with its operatives, but said the quality of the intelligence gleaned from him was significantly better after he had been tortured.
Before being subjected to the brutal interrogation techniques, the CIA asserts, Ghul had merely “speculated” that Kuwaiti was a courier for bin Laden and a trusted member of the terror mastermind’s inner circle. After the torture started, the CIA says, Ghul specified that Kuwaiti had passed a message from bin Laden to another senior al Qaeda operative. “This information was not only more concrete and less speculative, it also corroborated information” suggesting that Kuwaiti had been a member of al Qaeda long after 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — in an apparent attempt to prevent the CIA from deciphering Kuwaiti’s true relationship to bin Laden — asserted that Kuwaiti had left the terror group.
Either way, there is no disputing that Ghul became a key part of the CIA’s public defense of its torture program and an unwitting participant in the agency’s sophisticated PR campaign designed to sell the narrative that torture helped find bin Laden.
On May 5, 2011, the CIA gave the Senate intelligence panel a document claiming that Ghul provided “Tier One” intelligence about Kuwaiti after being brutally interrogated. That, according to the Senate, was simply incorrect.
“The most detailed and accurate intelligence collected from a CIA detainee” about Kuwaiti “was from Hassan Ghul, and was acquired prior to the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques against Ghul,” the probe concludes.