LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Let's try to sort out some facts behind a fierce political debate. The debate is over torture and whether it was used to gain information that led to Osama bin Laden.
To find bin Laden, U.S. officials first had to find his courier, who went by the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. NPR has learned, by the way, that he was Pakistani and was born in Kuwait. To find the courier, the U.S. questioned people at Guantanamo. Supporters of the Bush administration insist this case justifies the administration's interrogation techniques. Critics have said otherwise. The underlying facts are not fully clear. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on what we know so far.
TOM GJELTEN: Documents from the Guantanamo prison camp show detainees there and at secret CIA prisons were interrogated over and over about bin Laden's courier network and Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti in particular.
One man scheduled to be transferred out of Guantanamo, for example, was recommended for continued detention, in part because intelligence officials thought he had more information to provide about al-Kuwaiti.
Every statement was carefully recorded: that al-Kuwaiti had a guesthouse in Pakistan where he hosted visiting al-Qaida volunteers, that he arranged airline travel and passed along money from al-Qaida financiers, that he was assigned to teach one al-Qaida member to use email.
The Guantanamo documents describe al-Kuwaiti as a senior al-Qaida facilitator and courier. And the footnotes reveal how and when this information was acquired. Some of the first leads came from detainees who were interrogated while in CIA custody. And this is where the controversy arises. About a third of the CIA detainees were subjected to what the agency euphemistically called enhanced interrogation techniques.
General Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, describes what those techniques included.
General MICHAEL HAYDEN (Former director, CIA): They range from something as innocuous as something called the attention grasp or the facial grasp. You know, grabbing somebody by the lapels or grabbing them by the chin, to a variety of things that had to do with sleep and diet or stress positions.
GJELTEN: In the most extreme case, waterboarding, when detainees experience what it's like to drown.
Among those who provided information while under CIA control was Hassan Gul, a senior al Quaida operative from Pakistan. According to the detainee documents, Gul told interrogators that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti traveled with bin Laden. A senior U.S. official says the information Gul provided was key to identifying al-Kuwaiti as bin Laden's courier. But, he may have done it under stress.
A 2005 document indicates that Gul was one of the CIA detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. He is now free.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and one of three CIA detainees subjected to waterboarding, indirectly confirmed information about al-Kuwaiti.
Critics of enhanced interrogation techniques say they're tantamount to torture, and they argue that intelligence gleaned from those interrogations is unreliable. They also point out that some of the most useful information that came from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others was obtained only after the harsh interrogations ended. General Hayden says he wouldn't be surprised by that.
Gen. HAYDEN: I'm willing to concede the point that no one gave us valuable or actionable intelligence while they were, for example, being waterboarded. The purpose of the enhanced interrogation techniques was to take someone who was refusing to cooperate with us and to accelerate the process by which we would move from a zone of defiance to a zone of cooperation.
GJELTEN: Moving a detainee from defiance to cooperation essentially, breaking him. But how do you know the information the detainee finally provided could not have been acquired some other way?
In an interview with NBC, current CIA Director Leon Panetta said harsh CIA interrogations were only one part of the intelligence-gathering process that led to bin Laden's courier.
Mr. LEON PANETTA (Director, CIA): They used these enhanced-interrogation techniques against some of these detainees, but I'm also saying that, you know, the debate about whether we would've gotten the same information through other approaches, I think, is always going to be an open question.
GJELTEN: And a hotly debated one, given that finding and killing Osama bin Laden was as much an intelligence triumph as a military achievement.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.