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The quest for bin Laden, the question of torture

This is a 1998 file photo shows Osama bin Laden.


Hard Measures

How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, by Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., S&S/Threshold, 261 pages, $29.99


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The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbotabad, by Peter L. Bergen, Doubleday Canada, 359 pages, $32.95

He was known definitively only as "the pacer." Seen by satellite, he lived with his large family in a walled compound. He stepped outside only to pace his tarp-covered garden. He never used computers or phones.

Still, watchful spies in Washington felt they had got a bead on the world's most wanted terrorist, even if they couldn't see his face or hear his voice. In the end, there was only one way to find out for certain: send in Navy SEALs on stealth helicopters in the dark of night, into a sovereign country that could know nothing of the mission, so that the commandos could storm the compound without leaks or interference.

When these spectacular details of how the United States killed Osama bin Laden were divulged, I was among observers awed by just how much intelligence spadework went into that mission. Scads of soldiers and spies had teamed up over a decade to amass the necessary clues. But of all the arcane acronyms, it was the EITs, or the "enhanced interrogation techniques," that tripped the most people up.

Which is fitting. Inside and outside Washington, there is a fierce debate as to whether these once-classified techniques – including "waterboarding" – helped or hurt the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In any event, can techniques that verge on torture really garner useful intelligence information? Two new books help weigh in on this question, but with very different perspectives.

Peter Bergen, an investigative journalist who was eyeball to eyeball with the al-Qaeda leader during a 1997 interview (back when "Usama bin Laden" was the preferred intelligence-agency transliteration), has published his fourth book on UBL, Manhunt.

And an ex-Central Intelligence Agency executive named Jose A. Rodriquez Jr. offers an insider's take: Hard Measures.

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Rodriguez's memoir tells the reader how a go-with-your-gut Puerto Rican made his name as a CIA spy through Latin American drug probes. Yet his career was in limbo at Langley, at least until he strode into the CIA's Counterterrorism Centre (CTC) in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even Rodriguez seemed impressed with how rapidly he rose: "I had no clear job, no office and no title. … So I created them for myself." He elected to call himself "the CTC's chief operations officer" and was given "all the latitude I could want."

One wishes someone had kept him on a shorter leash. Working under open-ended presidential decrees, Rodriguez personally authorized the waterboarding interrogations of key al-Qaeda figures. Years later, he found himself under criminal investigation for ordering the destruction of the videotapes of those same interrogations, so no one outside the CIA would ever see them.

It would be nice if the tapes had survived, if only to verify Rodriguez's claims about the interrogation of the Sept. 11 mastermind known as "KSM" (spyspeak for Khalid Sheik Mohammed). The CIA has been revealed to have waterboarded this admitted terrorist an astonishing 183 times.

Rodriguez says that amounts to only 183 individual pours, not 183 distinct grilling sessions, and that in any case, the simulated drowning of prisoners was no big deal – it wasn't as if the CIA was ever actually allowed to hurt anyone. "KSM seemed to have figured out that we weren't going to push things too far," he writes. "While strapped down on a gurney and as water was being applied, he used his fingers to tick off the seconds. … What eventually brought KSM to the compliant stage was more sleep deprivation."

While Rodriguez says such EITs were invaluable, many of his counterterrorism colleagues aren't so sure. The consensus CIA opinion seems to be that the soften-'em-up methods elicited only lay-of-the-land information, "a cartography of al-Qaeda," according to one official.

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That was valuable, but the counterterrorism crown jewels were still out there. Namely, "Where in the world was UBL hiding?"

By 2007, the CIA started to seize on the idea of a back-to-basics "bank shot," getting to bin Laden by zeroing in on his message-courier network. Yet they didn't really get actionable intelligence on this until 2010. That was when a Kuwaiti al-Qaeda courier got a bit sloppy in turning off his cellphone, allowing signals spooks at the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to track him to northwest Pakistan.

Once flesh-and-blood spies were put on the ground to follow the Kuwaiti courier, this "human intelligence" (humint) led the CIA to the Abbottabad compound.

The reconstruction of the White House debate over what to do next is the most gripping part of Bergen's book; President Barack Obama and his cabinet were deeply divided over the wisdom of a raid. Then, on April 29, 2011, Obama ended the dithering with three words: "It's a go."

Hours later, listening in by live link, the President heard back what he wanted to hear: "EKIA," or military parlance for "enemy killed in action."

And before the SEALs dumped bin Laden's body into the sea, a 6-foot-4 soldier lay beside the corpse to verify that they had indeed shot the right man.

Bergen puts the overall cost of the mission in perspective. "If the war on terror was, in the end, as much about bringing bin Laden to justice as anything else, it is sobering to observe that American intelligence agencies consumed half a trillion dollars on their way to that goal," he writes.

And given the CIA's use of EITs and other harsh techniques, its safe to say the United States also blew through much of its moral capital as well.

Colin Freeze writes about security issues for The Globe and Mail.

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