WASHINGTON — A Senate investigation concludes waterboarding and other
harsh interrogation methods provided no key evidence in the hunt for Osama bin
Laden, according to congressional aides and outside experts familiar with a
still-secret, 6,200-page report. The finding could deepen the worst rift in
years between lawmakers and the CIA.
The CIA disputes the conclusion and already is locked with the Senate
intelligence committee in an acrimonious fight amid dueling charges of snooping
and competing criminal referrals to the Justice Department. The public may soon
get the chance to decide, with the congressional panel planning to vote Thursday
to demand a summary of its review be declassified.
From the moment of bin Laden’s death almost three years ago, former Bush
administration figures and top CIA officials have cited the evidence trail
leading to the al-Qaida mastermind’s walled Pakistani compound as vindication of
the “enhanced interrogation techniques” they authorized after the Sept. 11,
But Democratic and some Republican senators have called that account
misleading, saying simulated drownings known as waterboarding, sleep deprivation
and other such practices were cruel and ineffective.
The intelligence committee’s report, congressional aides and outside experts
said, backs up that case after examining the treatment of several high-level
terror detainees and the information they provided on bin Laden. The aides and
people briefed on the report demanded anonymity because they weren’t authorized
to speak publicly about the confidential document.
The most high-profile detainee linked to the bin Laden investigation was Khalid
Sheikh Mohammed, the accused Sept. 11 mastermind who was waterboarded 183 times.
Mohammed, intelligence officials have noted, confirmed after his 2003 capture
that he knew an important al-Qaida courier with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed
The Senate report concludes such information wasn’t critical, according to the
aides. Mohammed only discussed al-Kuwaiti months after being waterboarded, while
he was under standard interrogation, they said. And Mohammed neither
acknowledged al-Kuwaiti’s significance nor provided interrogators with the
courier’s real name.
The debate over how investigators put the pieces together is significant
because years later, the courier led U.S. intelligence to the sleepy Pakistani
military town of Abbottabad. There, in May 2011, Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in
a secret mission.
The CIA also has pointed to the value of information provided by senior
al-Qaida operative Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was captured in 2005 and held at a
secret prison run by the agency.
In previous accounts, U.S. officials have described how al-Libi made up a name
for a trusted courier and denied knowing al-Kuwaiti. Al-Libi was so adamant and
unbelievable in his denial that the CIA took it as confirmation he and Mohammed
were protecting the courier.
The Senate report concludes evidence gathered from al-Libi wasn’t significant
either, aides said.
Essentially, they argue, Mohammed, al-Libi and others subjected to harsh
treatment confirmed only what investigators already knew about the courier. And
when they denied the courier’s significance or provided misleading information,
investigators would only have considered that significant if they already
presumed the courier’s importance.
The aides did not address information provided by yet another al-Qaida
operative: Hassan Ghul, captured in Iraq in 2004. Intelligence officials have
described Ghul as the true linchpin of the bin Laden investigation after he
identified al-Kuwaiti as a critical courier.
In a 2012 news release, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the head of the Senate
Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., acknowledged an
unidentified “third detainee” had provided relevant information on the
courier. But they said he did so the day before he was subjected to harsh CIA
interrogation. “This information will be detailed in the Intelligence
committee’s report,” the senators said at the time.
In any case, it still took the CIA years to learn al-Kuwaiti’s real identity:
Sheikh Abu Ahmed, a Pakistani man born in Kuwait. How the U.S. learned of
Ahmed’s name is still unclear.
Without providing full details, aides said the Senate report illustrates the
importance of the National Security Agency’s efforts overseas.
Intelligence officials have previously described how in the years when the CIA
couldn’t find where bin Laden’s courier was, NSA eavesdroppers came up with
nothing until 2010 _ when Ahmed had a telephone conversation with someone
monitored by U.S. intelligence.
At that point, U.S. intelligence was able to follow Ahmed to bin Laden’s
Feinstein and other senators have spoken only vaguely of the contents of the
But they have made references to the divergence between their understanding of
how the bin Laden operation came together and assertions of former CIA and Bush
administration officials who have defended harsh interrogations.
Responding to former CIA deputy director Jose Rodriguez’s argument that
Mohammed and al-Libi provided the “lead information” on the bin Laden
operation, Feinstein and Levin said, “The original lead information had no
connection to CIA detainees.”
They rejected former CIA Director Michael Hayden’s claim that evidence on the
couriers began with interrogations at black sites and Attorney General Michael
Mukasey’s declaration that intelligence leading to bin Laden began with
The facts, they said, show that the CIA learned of the courier, his true name
and location “through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation
program.” They have cited a “wide variety of intelligence sources and
Terror suspects who were waterboarded “provided no new information about the
courier” and offered no indication of where bin Laden was hiding, the senators
Feinstein will hold a vote of her 15-member committee Thursday to release of a
400-page summary of the report, according to aides. Approval would start a
declassification process with the CIA that could take several months before
documents are made public. Among her strongest backers are Levin and Sen. John
McCain, R-Ariz., who was tortured in a North Vietnamese prison during the U.S.
conflict in Vietnam.
Senate investigators and CIA officials have yet to cool their dispute, which
boiled out into the open earlier this month. Feinstein accused the agency of
improperly monitoring the computer use of Senate staffers and deleting files,
undermining the Constitution’s separation of powers. The CIA alleges the
intelligence panel illegally accessed certain documents.