Inconvenient Facts About The Takedown of Osama bin Laden

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.

25 thoughts on “Inconvenient Facts About The Takedown of Osama bin Laden”

  1. To preempt an objection from the regular readers: yes, I know this re-plows some ground from yesterday’s post, but I was cleaning it up to post at RedState.

  2. I will not give the Current President any credit for anything I am incapable of being objective or honest.
    Signed Crank
    Now back to reality Crank. One of my favorite TV shows is A&E First 48. Watching those detectives take old fashion gum shoe detective work and put an entire picture together is simply amazing. Watching a seasoned investigator take a shred of evidence and bluff and present that data to a suspect always seem to confirm more of the picture without torture just simple patience and logic.
    So we may never know what information was gathered via torture or simple Q/A with KSM. We do know low level guys had given up the courier the interrogators presented this info to KSM to see how he played it. The problem is Crank you want to believe only one way to get information. It would be hard to understand torturing a guy for chasing a possible lead. To verify this courier dollars to donuts they worked KSM slowly looking to see what he denied or misled them on things they knew to be true. Simple police work. So please post another 20,000 word opus to defend an illogical point. Just give the Commander in Chief his full credit. And remember Bush and Rummy was looking in caves not cities as President Obama did.

  3. Interesting to see the following from Jamelle Bouie at TAPPED in my RSS reader almost immediately following this post:
    “Second, this illustrates the limited utility of procedural arguments against torture. To say that you oppose torture because it never produces accurate information is to commit yourself to accepting torture on the chance that it does. Now, as Beutler points out in his story, the truth is that we obtained information on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts from traditional (read: not torture) methods of interrogation. Still, the conversation on torture would have benefited from a liberal willingness to engage conservatives on the morality of torture, instead of lukewarm arguments about its effectiveness.”
    He links to Brian Beutler restating the “when a guy confesses to the good cop, that means the bad cop was not a factor in anything that followed” argument, but otherwise is sympatico with your post.

  4. Not all integrations are good cop – bad cop. Most are letting the suspect talk themselves into a hole and slow poke holes in that story. Most times the lie to hide a known fact will give the integrator the details and information they need to get the truth. So it is stupid to make this a debate about torture. It would more productive to make this a debate about good techniques that lead to quality information. Bin Laden still in a cave???

  5. BTW, I find it interesting that the truth seems to be that bin Laden DIDN’T hide behind his wife, contradicting what the White House first said.
    What are the chances we’ll see Andy Sullivan have a post on the “Odd Lies of Barack Obama”? Should we go back to see which Lefties made mountains out of the initial incorrect details of the Jessica Lynch story? Or the Pat Tillman story?

  6. I have to give it to the right. You have these really fascinating obsessions with torture and gay sex. Are you all so repressed or what?

  7. A.S., Are you seriously comparing the Jessica Lynch fairy tale and the absolutely immoral and cruel way in which Pat Tillman and his family were treated by the Bush Admin to a crack about OBL (or whomever) using a woman as a human shield? Those are equal in your mind. They made A MOVIE about Jessica Lynch and pretty much zero of it was true. Please, please defend the way they handled the Pat Tillman death. Please, just any comment defending that will do just fine.

  8. To quote an objection made by the prosecutor in “Inherit the Wind,” your post is an amazing example of prestidigitation, raising strawmen while simultaneously claiming that “Never is a hard thing to prove and an easy one to disprove.”
    Your ending assertion, implying that the “left” claimed the Bush Administration “multifaceted” approach to terror yielded nothing of value is a perfect example. I’m sure some nut job on the left made that argument (Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan seem likely suspects), but no one in their right mind would make such a sweeping assertion. The main criticism of the Bush regime was in the extent to which it trampled civil liberties, constitutional rights and the law of war. Of course it had successes, just not nearly to the extent it and you fellow travelers claimed.
    A second example is your assertion: “So much for the idea that the Iraq War yielded us no benefits in the hunt for bin Laden.” Who said that? Even if they had, you can’t rationally argue that the human, monetary and opportunity costs of that idiotic adventure was worth this small piece of useful information.
    Finally, your continued defense of the war crime of torture is premised on your characterization of the critiques. Waterboarding was not the only torture technique practiced by the Bush Administration. It was, quite simply, one of the ones that undeniably constituted torture. The question as to whether torture ever yields reliable information misses the point. By stooping to torture, we undermined our values and our standing in the world and, not unimportantly, made it a more dangerous world for our troops.

  9. M,
    When I read this second post to follow up on the first one I immediately thought about mentioning the first law of holes but then thought, “what does one do if they not only don’t think they are in a hole but are on top of a mountain or a hill or riding a talking unicorn?” How would the first law of holes apply to someone who is unaware or at least entirely unconcerned that they are, in fact, in a hole?

  10. Crank,
    Rather than see hypocrisy, I wholly congratulate the administration for pulling this off precisely because they have now legitimized most everything they and their supporters screamed about during the Bush years. It’s not just that they backed away from closing Gitmo, having civilian trials in NYC, etc. They’ve now shredded the ‘shredding the Constitution’ argument, as they have now accepted and acted upon the intelligence gathered through witretaps, eavesdropping and enhanced interrogation. The criminal prosecution mindset would have required ignoring this evidence, as the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’. Waterboarding broke KSM, and afterwards he gave us the courier’s code name, he wasn’t talking before he got wet, then he spilled readily without further prompting.
    As with their Predator strikes, the Administration has realized that they can’t work with the artificial and unworkable criminal law constraints they and their kindred have been trying to graft onto our dealings with terrorists since 9/11. As a result, they have opted for a Dead-Terrorist policy and thereby avoid all of the messy legalities they once argued for back when people were taken alive and interrogated. Sure is a long way from giving Miranda rights on the battlefield, isn’t it? Screw the outstanding 1998 indictment against OBL, job-one was keeping him away from Eric Holder and company.
    I therefore take comfort in knowing that the Lefties, like me, will not lose a wink of sleep if the latest reports are accurate that OBL was unarmed when his head got the gumby makeover. We’ve come a long way from the days of 2009 when a SEAL could be court-martialed for punching the top terrorist in Iraq while bringing him into custody. The president has united the country and I am glad.
    This was a great day for America.

  11. On a lighter note, how would you like to be the Pakistani real estate agent (or whatever the equivalent) trying to sell the former OBL compound? I can imagine the ad: “Get away from it all! Lots of privacy!! No phone or internet! Perfect for the handyman. Carpets may need replacing.”

  12. Sadly, I think that would attract the same sort of buyers you’d get if Hitler’s bunker had been left standing.

  13. Torture is immoral AND it doesn’t work.
    If it was moral and worked, we’d have used it on Scooter Libbey, Arturo Gonzalez, and the Board of Directors of every Wall Street financial institution to get to the truth.
    Now THAT would be a great day for America.

  14. OK, I’ll try again. Torture as an effective tool of information extraction doesn’t work. I could repeat it but why bother. Torture was used, and got nowhere. Regular techniques is what did it.
    In an effort to legitimize this blood zeal to torture, Cheney (let’s see how long he holds out under a waterboard) and Bush gets a thirty something lawyer, John Yoo, to say it’s OK. Meaning they couldn’t find someone with REAL gravitas to say that. You can find people to say anything: intelligent design is real; torture is OK; climate change is a myth; oil is renewable. Doesn’t make it so, just makes it printed. Ray Kelly says it doesn’t work. He says profiling doesn’t work. Who should we listen to? The geniuses who first couldn’t get OBL, then didn’t mention his name for years (and disbanded the CIA unit charged with finding him?) or the top cop on the planet, with decades of real world experience.
    Now the WSJ is printing that the Obama Administration is wrong to kill AQ members, and not capture them. Typical of those who don’t understand evolution: You kill them before they reproduce, their miserable murdering ways die with them. And you give pause to some who would consider joining. The end of Al Qaeda is not the end of terrorism, just as they weren’t the beginning. But better a series of dead enemies than a group of living ones giving hope to the rest.

  15. “Now the WSJ is printing that the Obama Administration is wrong to kill AQ members, and not capture them.”
    I read that – it was an opinon piece by Yoo, who was in the Justice Department. It’s more than a little naive to think that bin Laden, if captured, would have given the US any useful intelligence. His underlings would be great to capture, but not him.

  16. Bush gets a thirty something lawyer, John Yoo, to say it’s OK. Meaning they couldn’t find someone with REAL gravitas to say that.
    You have no idea what you’re talking about. I always knew this, but anybody who knows anything about Yoo–regardless of their opinions of his reasoning–now knows you are clueless.

  17. Yes, Daryl is wrong about Yoo’s bona fides. He is no intellectual lightweight, and his age really shouldn’t be an issue.

  18. Yoo’s age shouldn’t matter any more than his intellectual bona fides. Whatever his intellectual bona fides, they were trumped by political expediency. (and if it wasn’t Yoo, there’s plenty more conservative lawyers out there who would gladly have told the Bush Administration whatever it was they wanted to hear–legally consistent or not).
    Any of you Crankers who want to argue the point, please point me to Yoo’s pleas for pardons to all those who have been tried by the U.S. for torture.

  19. Wrong wrong and more wrong. Age does count. Not age really, but experience. No amount of schooling can replace that.
    Yoo did what any kid (and when you are in your thirties, absent some extraordinary circumstances, you are a kid, with probably ten years under your belt at best. That’s not a lot) would do: please your boss. And when your boss happens to be the President of the United States, it takes a helluva person to say no.
    We managed to fight two world wars, and did some pretty crappy things (Curtis LeMay always said that if the Japanese won he would have been prosecuted as a war criminal). But we didn’t tend to allow torture as a matter of course. Soldiers in the field? Well, probably, except in the Pacific, which was fought with no rules whatsoever. Somehow though, I don’t think Yoo stormed Iwo Jima.
    You see, his bona fides were indeed perfect the day he told his bosses that they could commit acts of torture legally: he happened to be out the day they taught law at law school.

  20. Yoo is a partisan hack, who lacked the courage and integrity to stand up to White House pressure. There too few lawyers (on the right and left) like James Comey or Archibald Cox, who are willing to say no irrespeective of how unwelcome such a word may be.

  21. Apparently, it isn’t enough to say – “I think Yoo is wrong” or “I disagree with his legal reasoning” – you have to jump to the conclusion that he must be “partisan hack” and “too young.”
    Believing that any 35 year old wouldn’t give a legal opinion contrary to what his bosses expect – which by itself is a ridiculously sweeping and unsupported conclusion – then at what age do you believe people grow a backbone?? Apparently, you must also think that we should raise the age where someone can run for President, too.
    News flash – if you have a good legal mind, you don’t have to be an old man. If you have a problem with his legal analysis, then make your case, but when you guys make these kind of silly assumptions, your credibility takes a hit.
    Incidentally, I have no opinion about Yoo, but I’m not going to form it on the basis of his age or the fact that he happens to be conservative.

  22. My age comment had nothing to do with Yoo’s political leaning, although the Bush White House had a history like no other, including Nixon’s, of purging those not of the right political purity. That said, the White House did ask for a legal opinion on torture. Now if they didn’t think it politically or ethically important, they didn’t know of our history at Nuremberg, or they just didn’t care, or whatever. Because they did want to cover up the fact that they thought torture was OK.
    So for what they HAD to know was going to be a momentous decision (and let’s face it, they knew it was wrong, why cover up the facts otherwise? And those morons thought it could be covered up—nothing can be), did they go to an Archibald Cox? Did they go to the Attorney General? Did they go to the most senior US Attorney at the DOJ? No, they went to some 30 something squirt who told them what they wanted to hear. I know you don’t want to hear that, but let’s face it, it’s true. And I would say that no matter the administration.
    So my opinion is not an indictment of Yoo. It’s of the Bush Administration, for making it a matter of state policy to torture, to make it supposedly legal, and then covering it up.

  23. “Former government lawyer John Yoo taking credit on behalf of the Bush administration for Sunday’s strike against Osama bin Laden is like Edward John Smith, the captain of the Titanic, taking credit for the results of the 1998 Academy Awards.”

  24. Giving Obama all of the credit for kiling bin Laden would be like giving Nixon all of the credit for getting to the moon. (h/t Wash Times)
    Except, of course, that none of Nixon’s supporters thought that going to the moon was a criminal act.

Comments are closed.