Osama bin Laden Was Not Caught Because of Torture but in Spite of It

Waterboarding and other torture techniques impeded the hunt for bin Laden, claims an interrogation expert.

MBC, APTN / AP Photo

While some may celebrate the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, perhaps time would be better served evaluating why it came nine years too late. The sad truth is that bin Laden should have been dead twice in the first two years after 9/11.

The first opportunity was missed in the mountains of Tora Bora early in the war in Afghanistan, when former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted that local Afghan forces kill bin Laden rather than allowing our own elite fighters to do so when they had him in their sights. It was also Rumsfeld’s decision not to seal off the border with Pakistan, declaring victory too early because of his arrogance (a theme that would be repeated in Iraq), thus allowing bin Laden to escape.

The second opportunity was missed when the Bush administration approved the CIA's waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of 9/11 and former al Qaeda operations officer. Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA officer who ran the agency's torture program, now insists in his new book, Hard Measures, that torture led to the identification of an al Qaeda courier and the killing of Osama bin Laden. The truth, however, is that KSM lied to his interrogators and told them that Abu Ahmed, the nom de guerre of bin Laden's courier, had retired when in fact he was still active. That lie cost us almost a decade in the hunt for bin Laden. As al Qaeda's chief of operations, KSM certainly knew that Abu Ahmed could prove to be the key piece to finding the former al Qaeda leader, but he did exactly what professional interrogators have been saying people do when faced with coercion—they lie or give limited and misleading information. In the end, it turned out Abu Ahmed was one of the vital pieces of intelligence that led to bin Laden's demise.

When Rodriguez, who was not an interrogator, wanted to develop an interrogation capability post-9/11 to handle the numerous detainees being captured and turned over to American forces during the early days of the Global War on Terror, he turned to two contract psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, neither of whom had ever conducted an interrogation. They, in turn, decided to create a program that would instill in detainees a condition known as “learned helplessness,” through the use of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” better known as torture and abuse. The fact that Rodriguez could not distinguish between the so-called expertise of two charlatans and the plethora of successful interrogations experience that existed in the military and FBI, is reason to doubt his competence.

Or was it arrogance? Is it that far of a walk to any public library or computer with a search engine to discover that World War II interrogators, facing enemies just as committed and ruthless as al Qaeda, were extremely successful against their foes using non-coercive techniques? Perhaps the most famous interrogator in American history, Marine Major Sherwood Moran, was able to get numerous Japanese prisoners of war to provide information during World War II using compassion, rapport-building, and showing respect for their culture. The CIA, on the other hand, did just the opposite, engaging in acts that mirrored the unlawful brutality of Japanese guards during World War II, many of whom were executed or given life sentences for torturing prisoners.

Despite President Obama's policy of looking forward and not backward with regards to the crimes committed by those who tortured detainees and those who authorized it, the fact remains that history will not prove so forgiving. Torture and abuse will be a black stain on America's moral cloth for a long time.

The good news is that while these fake interrogators continue to argue for torture, the real interrogators are busy improving non-coercive interrogation techniques through academic research and by sharing expertise throughout the law enforcement, military, and intelligence communities such as they do on the High Value Interrogation Group set up by the Obama Administration. These are the types of efforts that allow us to continue to gain the vital intelligence required to stop terrorist attacks, unlike torture as advocated by those who committed war crimes.