WASHINGTON, May 17, 2011 -- Top current and former government officials may have finally answered the question of whether intelligence gained from the use of waterboarding played a role in the discovery of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.
It could all boil down to a war of words.
The controversy began on May 12 when Sen. John McCain, a former POW who was tortured at the hands of Vietnamese captors, took to the Senate floor to criticize those who claimed that intelligence gleaned from enhanced interrogation techniques used against high value detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was used to find bin Laden.
In an impassioned speech McCain, who was a harsh critic of the use of waterboarding during the Bush administration, said, "It was not torture, or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama Bin Laden."
McCain specifically criticized comments made by Michael Mukasey, a U.S. attorney general under the Bush administration, who had claimed in an op-ed on May 6 that the trail to bin Laden "began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM)" made after he had been subject to waterboarding. Mukasey said that KSM had revealed "the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden."
Mukasey's op-ed infuriated McCain. In his speech he said he had taken up the matter with CIA Director Leon Panetta, who had told him that KSM had not provided the name of the courier.
"I hope former Attorney General Mukasey will correct his misstatement," McCain said.
In the days following McCain's speech and Mukasey's op-ed, former Bush administration officials came forward to support the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques and to criticize President Obama for signing an executive order that limited the use of interrogation techniques to the less harsh ones found in the military's Army Field Manual.
On Monday, as first reported by the Washington Post, excerpts from a letter from Panetta to McCain dated May 9 were released. In the letter, Panetta reiterates what he has said publicly -- that bin Laden was found after 10 years of intensive intelligence from "multiple streams" and "painstaking collection and analysis."
In the letter, which was verified by a spokesperson at the CIA, Panetta says: "We first learned about the facilitator/courier's nom de guerre from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002." He said that some detainees who had been subject to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false information about the courier.
"In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier's full true name or specific whereabouts," Panetta said.
The statement leaves open the possibility that both Mukasey and Panetta are correct. Panetta refers to the "full true name" of the courier, while Mukasey, in an appearance Monday at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said KSM disclosed "the nickname" in the course of the questioning that took place after the enhanced interrogation techniques.
Mukasey said that while it wasn't the first time a detainee had mentioned the name, it only became significant "when it came out of [KSM'S] mouth."
And he indicated he believes the controversy is more than just a war of words regarding the courier's nickname or his true name.
"I'm not accusing anybody of being misleading and I'm certainly not here to play word games," he said. "I know what I said to be true, and you can read into that [Panetta's] letter what you want to.
"I'm not interested in playing word games with anybody, least of all with a certified war hero who has a superb public record," Mukasey said of McCain. "But it's possible to be a war hero and have an excellent public record and be mistaken about some things, all at the same time. "
At the same event John Rizzo, who served as the CIA's general counsel during the Bush administration, said the CIA was always sure that "couriers were the Rosetta stone" that would eventually lead to bin Laden. He said, however, that it is "unknowable" whether bin Laden would have ever been captured had the CIA not had its interrogation program in place.
"The purpose of the program was not to basically break detainees with these tactics so they'd blurt out the truth," Rizzo said. "The purpose of the program was to create a condition that would cause a detainee basically to give up hope and begin to be truthful in the answers."
Rizzo said that "personally" he doubted that "any valuable information" could come from the top captured al Qaeda figures if the interrogators were limited to the Army Field Manual.
Mukasey agreed. He said that without the CIA's program intelligence officers are at a disadvantage when it comes to interrogations.
"The short of it is, we don't have anything in place. We have the Army Field Manual that al Qaeda uses as a training manual," he said.
Elisa Massimino, of Human Rights First, told the AEI gathering that waterboarding amounts to torture and that is why the Obama administration banned it.
"Torture is counterproductive," she said. "I suppose torture works in a way a row boat to Europe works."
In the audience were top former government officials including Porter Goss, who served as head of the CIA under the Bush administration, and David Addington, former Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of ctaff.