Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The evidence trail

Emptywheel has several interesting posts on the OBL search, and she discusses this report on the intel leading us to the courier who led us to OBL. Her encyclopedic recollection in this area allows Emptywheel (can I call her Marcy?) to integrate such reports into their larger context.

She breaks down the trail as the story reports it:
•Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, months after he was waterboarded and via “standard” interrogation, admits he knows someone named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, but denies he has anything to do with al Qaeda.
•Hassan Ghul, who was captured in Iraq in 2004, reveals that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was an al Qaeda courier
•Under CIA interrogation, Abu Faraj al-Libi admits he learned he was replacing KSM through a courier, but denied knowing al-Kuwaiti so strenuously CIA figured he must be important
•Via still unclear means, CIA learns Abu Ahmed’s real name
•US picks up Abu Ahmed talking to someone else it was monitoring, speaking from a location away from the compound
•US tracks Abu Ahmed back to compound
And observes:
Further, the narrative the AP tells now makes it even more clear how ineffective the CIA program was. The AP’s sources specify that KSM did not admit he knew al-Kuwaiti while being waterboarded. But that sort of dodges the whole issue: in response to his torture, according to KSM, he made up false locations for OBL. At the same time he was shielding information that could lead to OBL–and he continued to shield it under “standard” interrogation (again, it’s a pity FBI’s KSM expert never got to interrogate him). And then al-Libi, when he was in the CIA’s interrogation program, managed to shield information that same information even after the CIA recognized it was important.

The CIA program failed to do one of the most important things it set out to do, break through detainees’ efforts to hide OBL.
None of this of course is stopping the usual suspects from trying to claim that torture works. (And we tortured prisoners in other ways than waterboarding.)


  1. I can't help but wonder whether truth serum type drugs -- and there are such things -- might not work as well or better as "harsh interrogation.

    As I understand international law, we had a duty to take OBL prisoner instead of shooting him if it could be done without risk to American soldiers. Yet we have been told that the mission was a "take out" mission. Taking him prisoner was not an option. Technically this is a war crime, isn't it?

    Given all the so-called "crazy conspiracy nuts" who think OBL was in the employ of the CIA right up until 9-11, I find it convenient that he now can't be interrogated. It just seems to me if there was information to be had, this was the man who could provide it. Unless, of course, there are those who didn't want him to tell everything he knew.

  2. There is no obligation to always capture enemy combatants instead of kill them. Eliminating command and control elements is standard military strategy. If he surrendered that would be a different matter, but most reports I've seen indicate that he did not. You can believe those or not as you will. I was hearing the "They could have captured him but didn't want him to talk!" as early as yesterday morning, so we've undoubtedly got a new conspiracy industry starting up. Hey, maybe OBL was actually present in Kenya when Obama was born, and had to be silenced! You think it's coincidence that we finally "find" him a week after the long form birth certificate??

    On the torture issue - while I'm happy from a tactical position that it didn't actually contribute much, if anything, to this effort, I think Kevin Drum's take is accurate. Nobody believes it's impossible for torture to produce meaningful intelligence - it will produce a lot of bad, but it's certainly possible to produce good.

    But it is wrong, even if it works. That's why the ticking time bomb scenarios are so bad and stupid - they become an ends justifying the means, at which point the debate is entirely about the ends. Is torture OK to stop the ticking time bomb? If it is, then would it be OK to get bin Laden? If it is, then why not OK to produce propaganda videos with down airmen denouncing their evil government? We'd probably trip over calling the latter OK, but only because we disapprove of the ends. By the time we get there, we've pretty much given up any right to complain about the means.

  3. There is no obligation to always capture enemy combatants instead of kill them.
    After poking around on the Internet, it looks like you are right on this. So if you have an opportunity to take an enemy combatant prisoner at no cost or risk and instead choose to kill him, that's okay.

    But if you decide to let him live, but slap him around a little while questioning him, that's a war crime.

    Welcome to Conundrum Corner.

  4. So if you have an opportunity to take an enemy combatant prisoner at no cost or risk and instead choose to kill him, that's okay.

    There is rarely - and I would argue never - any such thing as an opportunity to take a prisoner at no cost or risk.

    Military forces have obligations under the Geneva conventions and the Law of Armed Conflict. These primarily concern what are and are not valid targets for military operations. Command and control personnel are participating in the conflict, even if they're not holding a weapon on a battlefield, and that makes them combatants, hence a valid military target. Once an enemy has been taken prisoner, he is no longer a combatant, and is expected to be treated humanely.

    I can appreciate your perception of the disconnect, but this is well established. War sucks, having to kill people sucks, but your perception of what is and is not required is a bit uninformed.

  5. ...but your perception of what is and is not required is a bit uninformed.

    I've admitted my error. I just think it produces some irrational results.

  6. Heh. You're talking about war. It's pretty much irrational by definition. The amazing thing is that we've managed to at least carve out some limits to the irrational.

  7. ... Just got around to noticing my own blog. I have been arguing w/ Paul Campos on the supposed evidence for a "kill order."

    My own view, which may be incorrect, is that if (1) OBL threw up his hands and surrendered, and (2) our team had the wherewithal to take him prisoner, then they had a duty to do so. I don't think you can shoot a surrendered prisoner just because you don't feel like taking prisoners that day. Hands up = hors de combat.

    But I don't think we had any duty to negotiate with him or otherwise coax him to surrender. Armed or not, if he DIDN'T throw his hands up when we pointed a gun at him, then too bad.

  8. FWIW, A, I think your take is exactly correct. And having followed through the links, I think Campos and Greenwald are both wrong on this one. I can respect Glenn's uber-hardcore civil liberties stance, but Campos is pretty much in pure speculative conspiracy theory zone.

    It's a debate we're still having, but al Qaeda is a paramilitary organization. There's a distinct overlap there between law enforcement and military operations - that's pretty much what the term means. I'm not a lawyer, but I think if you go down the route Greenwald wants to, we had no legal right to be there at all, even to capture him.

    I happen to think law enforcement CAN deal with terrorism, but that doesn't mean it's inappropriate to consider them combatants, and thus subject to the appropriate regulations and laws for such - including having a bunch of SEALs shoot you in the head in a military raid.

    Did he try and surrender? We'll probably never know for sure, and the conspiracy theorists will have a field day with it. But given what we know of bin Laden, I'd doubt it.

    Glenn may have a point that it's unseemly for us, as a country, to revel in the death of an enemy. But I think the arguments that this somehow means we're on a fast track to fascism and gleeful public executions is way, WAY off base.