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With few other unquestionably popular accomplishments for this president to crow about, we should expect to hear a lot at the Democratic Convention the next two days about how President Obama authorized a Navy SEAL team to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Vice President Biden, who opposed the mission, has made it a favorite stump speech line: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
But signing off on killing bin Laden was a no-brainer; as anyone who remembers the past decade knows, the hard part was finding him. The Abbottabad raid was the culmination of many years of intelligence-gathering. And for all the chest-thumping by Obama and Biden, virtually none of that intelligence-gathering resulted from policy decisions that originated with the Obama Administration. To the contrary, several were harshly criticized by Obama and his allies, and some have been discontinued by Obama.
I looked at this in more detail based on accounts at the time (as did Ace), and little new has come to light since to change that picture; let’s review how the pieces of Bush-era national security and intelligence policy fell into place to pinpoint Osama bin Laden in May 2011:
A. Guantanamo and CIA Detention Centers
What we know, based on what’s been made public, is that bin Laden was located primarily by means of following a trail of intelligence that revealed that he was communicating with the outside world mainly via a single faithful courier, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. And the leads that gave us that knowledge came from the interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and CIA “black site” detention centers. Those detainees included 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda operational chief Abu Faraj al-Libi, “20th hijacker” Muhammad Mani al-Qahtani, and Hassan Ghul, an associate of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
None of this would have been possible if these detainees were treated as ordinary prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, to be asked only the proverbial name, rank and serial number. Barack Obama campaigned against these detention and interrogation sites, closed the CIA “black sites” his first week in office, and is still promising (albeit in increasingly empty fashion) to close Guantanamo (indeed, the 2012 Democratic platform is still promising that “we are substantially reducing the population at Guantanamo Bay without adding to it. And we remain committed to working with all branches of government to close the prison altogether because it is inconsistent with our national security interests and our values.”). The finding of bin Laden is an unambiguous victory for the detention and interrogation policies of the Bush Administration. And with those sites not accepting new detainees and the Administration switching emphasis to killing rather than capturing and interrogating enemy combatants, it is questionable whether that success can be replicated in the future, with terrorist leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar still at large.
Of the detainees questioned on the path to tracking al-Kuwaiti, the one that investigators have described as the “linchpin” of the whole investigation is Hassan Ghul. And where did we capture Hassan Ghul? In Iraq in 2004, reportedly by a Kurdish security checkpoint on the Iranian border carrying a message from Zarqawi to bin Laden asking for bin Laden’s support in the insurgency. Of course, none of this would have happened had Iraq remained a Saddam Hussein-run police state hostile to the United States. If we hadn’t invaded Iraq, we would not have captured Ghul, and bin Laden would still be alive. Does that, all by itself, justify the Iraq War? I wouldn’t go that far – there are a whole battery of considerations that we’ve all exhaustively beaten to death in that debate. But yet again: Barack Obama opposed the war, and without it, he wouldn’t have had the intelligence to get bin Laden.
C. NSA Surveillance
Electronic surveillance also played a key part in locating al-Kuwaiti: at some point between when the CIA pieced together his identity around 2007 and when he was located in 2009, the NSA surveillance net – the subject of much criticism back in the 2005-08 period – was set out to track calls between al-Kuwaiti’s family members and associates and anyone in Pakistan. I’ve seen no reference anywhere to a warrant ever having been obtained for this eavesdropping, and it worked exactly as defenders of warrantless eavesdropping predicted it might. As I argued back in 2005, there was never a policy reason to object to this sort of thing, as long as it was targeted as described (which it was here: to known associates and relatives of al-Kuwaiti).
As a legal matter, was a warrant needed, under the theory of the critics? It’s not clear one was, as most of the public sources indicate that al-Kuwaiti’s relatives (at least the ones he was caught communicating with) were in the Persian Gulf, not inside the United States. But it’s clear that the very same tool at issue in the FISA controversy was crucial to locating al-Kuwaiti and therefore bin Laden.
D. Coercive Interrogation
The three points above have barely even been contested by the once-noisy critics of Bush Administration policies; they have circled all their wagons around denying that coercive interrogation produced any returns, in line with their longstanding insistence that such interrogation has never, ever worked in any situation and never, ever conceivably could in any possible situation.
But the facts are more complex. The Bush Administration authorized the use of waterboarding on only three detainees, but Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was one of them, and he later provided key intelligence; you can draw your own conclusions as to whether confessing to the good cop means the bad cop accomplished nothing, but it’s safe to say that if this was a criminal trial, bin Laden’s lawyers would be arguing that any information obtained after waterboarding was “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Ghul appears to have been subjected to a number of the lesser coercive tactics, and al-Qahtani seems to as well. While basically everyone agrees that it’s preferable to use non-coercive interrogation techniques when possible, the record here suggests that a little humility by those calling for a total ban would be advisable, let alone attempting to pocket political winnings from the interrogation of these detainees.
Osama bin Laden is dead because our intelligence and our military found where he was hiding, using tools and leads inherited from the Bush Administration. If President Obama and Vice President Biden want to take credit for the easy decision to act on that information, well, there’s enough credit to go around. But they deserve no credit for finding him in the first place.