Harsh tactics may have aided US raid

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / May 4, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Hassan Ghul, an Al Qaeda courier arrested in Iraq in 2004, spent two years in a secret CIA prison, where detainees were subjected to interrogation practices such as facial slaps and sleep deprivation.

Sometime during those two years, Ghul named another important courier, a crucial tip that eventually helped lead to Sunday’s daring raid on Osama bin Laden’s hide-out, according to the Associated Press.

US officials have acknowledged that clues gleaned from the Bush administration’s controversial network of detention centers, coupled with years of patient intelligence work, netted the terrorist mastermind on Sunday. But they declined to say whether harsh interrogation practices — which President Obama opposes — played a role in their historic intelligence success.

Former Bush administration officials say the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound provides some vindication for detention and interrogation policies that have been widely criticized by the legal community, human rights advocates, and Obama himself.

“This would not have been possible if we were releasing terrorists willy-nilly and not interrogating them,’’ Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary under Bush told reporters Monday.

Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution who has authored books about the legal challenges of detaining terrorists, said it is too early tell what role, if any, coercive tactics played. But he said it is clear that interrogating hundreds of detainees over a period of years “developed a mosaic that led to bin Laden.’’

“There were many people who were far too quick to insist that no good could ever come from coercive interrogation,’’ Wittes said. “Those of us who resisted that proposition were always derided as apologists for torture. But the premise of that conventional wisdom was wrong. Actually important information does emerge from that sort of a program, and maybe even from the portions of that program that we call morally distasteful.’’

But others say the Bush administration’s techniques created more enemies than they neutralized, and that the debate over those tactics should not be revived.

“I think people have to be very, very careful about using this operation to justify the plainly illegal conduct that occurred under the Bush administration,’’ said Eugene Fidell, a specialist on military law at Yale Law School. “It is not clear to me that the seminal clue was obtained by means of torture,’’ he said. Even if it was, he added, it would not justify such tactics.

The Obama administration yesterday sought to downplay the importance of any single interrogation in the hunt for bin Laden.

“It simply strains credulity to suggest that a piece of information that may or may not have been gathered eight years ago somehow directly led to a successful mission on Sunday,’’ White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

The debate over how suspects in the war on terror should be treated has raged for nearly a decade. This latest round highlights questions about Obama’s own approach.

Obama has eschewed the use of secret prisons and harsh interrogation techniques, some of which his administration has described as torture. Obama has also avoided sending more detainees to Guantanamo Bay, which he tried in vain to close. Carney yesterday reiterated Obama’s opposition to harsh interrogation techniques.

But, at the same time, Obama has expanded the use of targeted killings. During his 2 1/2 years in office, US drone strikes have killed nearly 1,000 militants, compared with fewer than 300 during Bush’s eight years, according to an analysis by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

Kenneth Anderson, a law professor at American University, said that public outrage over the treatment of detainees and legal headaches surrounding their cases creates an incentive for US forces to kill militants rather than undertake dangerous operations to capture and detain them.

“Nobody actually sits down and says to themselves, ‘We don’t actually have a place to hold this person so let’s blow them up instead,’ ’’ said Anderson. “It’s rather that they say, for all sorts of reasons, ‘It’s risky to grab this person, and we can’t interrogate him anyway. We don’t have any obligations to take any risks, so why should we?’ ’’

The administration has defended the stepped-up drone strikes as a crucial means to assist its troop surge in Afghanistan. State Department legal adviser Harold Koh told the American Society of International Law last year that the United States has a duty to protect its citizens “by targeting persons such as high-level Al Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks.’’

The drone strikes have elicited few protests from American human rights groups. Neither did the killing of bin Laden, who was unarmed when he was fatally shot.

Yet, for years, American activists and lawyers vigorously protested the treatment of terrorist suspects in US custody, including Hassan Ghul.

Ghul’s name became well known in 2004 when US officials announced that he had been arrested in northern Iraq carrying a letter from one of Iraq’s most feared terrorists, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to bin Laden.

“Just last week, we made further progress in making America more secure, when a fellow named Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq,’’ President George W. Bush told reporters. “He was a killer. He was moving money and messages around South Asia and the Middle East to other Al Qaeda leaders.’’

But US officials never disclosed what became of Ghul. In 2005, Human Rights Watch included his name on a list of 26 “ghost prisoners’’ that researchers believed were secretly in US custody. A heavily-redacted CIA memo from 2005 states that a CIA interrogation team obtained permission to use enhanced interrogation techniques, including sleep deprivation, facial slaps, and “walling’’ — which refers to pushing into a wall — on a suspect named “Gul.’’

“The interrogation team ‘carefully analyzed Gul’s responsiveness to different areas of inquiry during this time and noted that his resistance increased as questioning moved to his knowledge of operational terrorist activities,’ ’’ the memo states.

The memo, widely seen as proof that Hassan Ghul had been subjected to harsh interrogation, was first reported by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, in 2009. Ghul was eventually transferred to the custody of Pakistani authorities, according to testimony by Rangzieb Ahmed, who was convicted of terrorism in a British court. Ahmed has said that Ghul was held in the cell next to him in a Pakistani detention center.

Little was known about what information the CIA gleaned from Ghul until yesterday, when the Associated Press quoted an unnamed US official who called Ghul “the linchpin’’ in the hunt to find bin Laden.

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser under Bush, said Obama “deserves full credit for the operation’’ that netted bin Laden.

“But I also think there was a great deal more thought and nuance in Bush’s detention policies than some of his detractors would acknowledge,’’ he said.

Farah Stockman can be reached at