One good rule of thumb if you are arguing politics – or practicing law, as I do – is that if your argument requires you to prove that something never happens or somebody does nothing good or right, you have started off with two strikes against you. Never is a hard thing to prove and an easy one to disprove. In the real world, bad ideas work sometimes, bad people do good things sometimes, brilliant plans fail sometimes, and time and chance happen to us all. This is, in fact, why the wise conservative recognizes the wisdom of crowds and the benefit of tradition: things must be tried many times by many people to see what works most, and what works in one situation may not work in another. Thus, while we can fairly debate the respective amount of credit given to President Obama and his senior advisors for taking out Osama bin Laden, there is no useful cause served in arguing that the Administration should get no credit. Many national leaders far worse than Obama have done something right in office. In the long run, Obama’s political success will stand or fall on his record as a whole.
A related caution is that the early news reports of almost anything are liable to be wrong, especially in wartime. I took great pleasure in the report offered by Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan that Osama bin Laden had died using one of his wives as a shield, but we are still seeing questions raised by some anonymous sources over the accuracy of Brennan’s statements. Even if Brennan’s account holds up, it may not be the last thing reported by the media regarding bin Laden’s death that turns out not to be true.
With those two cautions in mind, we must pity the dilemma of the anti-war Left in facing the enormously popular and inarguably successful takedown of bin Laden.
To the mere Democratic partisan, there is no real conflict: as long as people like the results achieved under President Obama, his party wins. But the anti-war Left spent most of the Bush years shrieking to high heaven about Bush shredding the Constitution, staining the integrity of the nation, yadda yadda yadda. Everything he did in pursuing the War on Terror had to be the WORST THING EVER, and every effort made to argue that you were beyond the pale of civilization if you approved of the Iraq War, the detention of unlawful combatants at Guantanamo Bay or various secret CIA facilities, the use of “enhanced” coercive interrogation techniques (or for that matter any interrogation outside the Geneva Convention’s name-rank-serial number questioning of traditional POWs), or the “assassination” of terrorists. This is the politics of outrage, the idea that you win arguments by being the angriest man in the room, that rather than argue that policies are not worth the costs and tradeoffs that come with every successful policy, they were inarguably wrong in every particular.
Consider the waterboarding debate. As it turns out, the CIA only waterboarded three men (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri), leading to the question of why the Left made such a colossal stink about it in the first place. Certainly, given those facts, nobody on the Right has argued that waterboarding or any other form of coercive interrogation should be the only or even the first recourse in interrogation (or even that they be used at all with criminal defendants or legitimate prisoners of war) – the argument is simply that these are sometimes-useful tools in an interrogator’s toolkit and that, in some extreme hard cases, it can be justifiable to use those tools against the very worst hard-core senior terrorist leaders. But critics of waterboarding have mostly long since painted themselves into the corner of insisting that the tradeoffs involved don’t need to be debated, because coercive interrogation never yields any information of any use in any situation.
This is poor ground to make a stand on.
Initial reports on the extensive detective work that led to cornering bin Laden have indicated a couple of things that are terribly inconvenient for these arguments. First, it appears that the initial lead that allowed bin Laden to be tracked down was the name of his courier (he used one or more couriers so he could stay off cell phones and the internet, a lesson he learned after a criminal trial revealed that our intelligence services were tracking him by cell phone), and that the nom de guerre of the courier was provided by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi to CIA interrogators. Both men had been held at precisely the sorts of “secret prisons” the Left denounced, and both subjected to coercive interrogation; in KSM’s case he was one of the three men waterboarded. The Left, being unable to accept even the possibility that waterboarding might have contributed anything ever to anyone, has sprung into full damage-control mode, but inadvertently made many of conservatives’ points for us. For example, ThinkProgress apparently thinks it is helping the cause by quoting Don Rumsfeld on the key leads coming from “normal interrogation tactics” at Guantanamo. But of course, if you spent years arguing that Guantanamo should be shuttered and all detainees subjected to the Geneva Conventions and tried in civilian courts, accepting this premise destroys your entire argument. Spencer Ackerman makes a lengthier effort to distance the information given by KSM and al-Libi to CIA interrogators:
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003, with al-Libbi following suit in 2005. A U.S. official tells the Associated Press reports that Mohammed gave up the courier’s nom de guerre, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, while in one of the CIA’s brutal “black site” prisons. As Marcy Wheeler notes, that’s not the same thing as saying the 183 waterboarding sessions Mohammed received led interrogators to the nom de guerre. But let’s be charitable to them and presume it did. According to the Washington Post, al-Libbi confirmed the alias as well.
From what we know so far, that’s about all waterboarding yielded for the hunt for al-Kuwaiti.
The senior administration official told reporters on Sunday that “for years, we were unable to identify his true name or his location.” It took until “four years ago” – 2007, then – for intelligence officials to learn al-Kuwaiti’s real name. By then, President Bush had ceased waterboarding and shuttered the black sites, moving the detainees within them, including Mohammed and al-Libbi, to Guantanamo Bay. In a Monday interview, Donald Rumsfeld said “normal” interrogation techniques were used at Gitmo on those detainees.
Once again, Ackerman has to concede basically every other piece of the Left’s argument – against GTMO, against CIA interrogation, against secret CIA prisons – in order to protect the Holy Grail of arguing that waterboarding never, ever, ever works. What he’s left with is the contention that when a guy confesses to the good cop, that means the bad cop was not a factor in anything that followed (the phrase “fruit of the poisonous tree” may ring a bell to some lawyers). And oh, yeah, those two guys gave up the lead that started it all.
It gets worse for Ackerman’s side:
It took more traditional sleuthing to get al-Kuwaiti’s real name, according to the Times. That meant putting more operatives on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan to track him, yielding a partial name. Once they had that, they unleashed “one of their greatest investigative tools”: the National Security Agency’s surveillance net. The NSA monitored email and phone traffic until they had his full name: Shaikh Abu Ahmed.
Last summer, the Associated Press reports, al-Kuwaiti/Ahmed made a fatal mistake: he called someone under NSA surveillance. After showing up on the grid, CIA operatives on the ground were able to hunt him.
You will note the absence of any reference to the NSA getting a search warrant for this. Once again, after all the huffing and puffing and lawsuits about NSA surveillance, it turns out that it, too, played a part in tracking down Public Enemy #1.
Are we done yet? No, we’re not. Thankfully, due perhaps to being off the internet grid, bin Laden wasn’t tipped off to the fact that we were on his trail by the fact that WikiLeaks had disclosed files showing we had tracked the courier by name to Abbottabad. But from WikiLeaks’ files we learn something else very interesting:
The file suggests that the courier’s identity was provided to the US by another key source, the al-Qaida facilitator Hassan Ghul, who was captured in Iraq in 2004 and interrogated by the CIA. Ghul was never sent to Guantanamo but was believed to have been taken to a prison in Pakistan.
He told the Americans that al-Kuwaiti travelled with bin Laden. The file states:
“Al-Kuwaiti was seen in Tora Bora and it is possible al-Kuwaiti was one of the individuals [al-Qahtani] reported accompanying UBL [bin Laden] in Tora Bora prior to UBL’s disappearance.”
The picture that emerges from al-Qahtani’s Guantanamo file supports statements given in the last 24 hours by US officials, who named Ghul as the “linchpin” in the intelligence operation to find bin Laden.
So much for the idea that the Iraq War yielded us no benefits in the hunt for bin Laden.
Is all of this the last word on how bin Laden was tracked down? Of course not. As I said at the outset, we are likely to learn a good deal more, and perhaps unlearn some things that have already been reported. But that’s why it’s not a good idea to make arguments that only work if the other side is 100% wrong about everything. It’s why Attorney General Holder professes himself agnostic as to whether “enhanced” interrogation contributed anything to getting bin Laden and Press Secretary Carney won’t answer the same question. The American people seem to know better; while the first poll on the subject gives good marks to President Obama for handling bin Laden, his approval rating tops out at a bump up to 56%, 51% (including more than a third of Democrats) also say that President Bush deserves some credit as well. Certainly the facts as we know them right now support the conclusion that you can’t separate the capture of bin Laden from the multifaceted Bush approach to counterterrorism that produced the witnesses and leads that let the intelligence and defense apparatus do its job in running the investigation – and Osama bin Laden – to ground.