MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
And today, on the 40th anniversary of our first broadcast, we begin with more details about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. U.S. intelligence officials had long-figured that their best hope of finding the al-Qaida leader was to identify and track the men who served as his couriers, and they did that thanks in large part to information obtained by interrogating bin Laden's followers.
As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, this week's successful operation has revived the debate over what interrogation methods work best.
TOM GJELTEN: Until 1998, U.S. intelligence agencies could track Osama bin Laden's movement through his use of satellite telephones. After he narrowly escaped a cruise missile attack that year, bin Laden apparently decided telephones were too dangerous.
From that point on, he communicated the old fashioned way - through messengers. U.S. intelligence officials had to adapt. Juan Zarate, who worked as counterterrorism specialist under President Bush, told NPR yesterday that queuing on the courier network was key.
Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies): And this was known and this was then used by the analytic framework by which to then construct a plan, a theory, a strategy to try to get to bin Laden.
GJELTEN: This focus on bin Laden's couriers continued under the Obama administration and it paid off. U.S. officials will not get too specific about the courier in whose house bin Laden was found living. But we do know this. For years one of the most important sources of information about bin Laden's couriers was the suspected al-Qaida members who were detained at Guantanamo or in CIA secret prisons.
When those men were interrogated, sometimes using procedures that were arguably tantamount to torture, the questions often focused on what they knew about the bin Laden courier network. Secret Guantanamo documents obtained by NPR and other news organizations show U.S. intelligence agents were especially interested in an alleged courier who went by the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
He was identified variously as a senior or mid-level al-Qaida operative who facilitated the movement of senior al-Qaida members and their families. One detainee report identified him specifically as one of bin Laden's couriers and a close associate of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
The man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was apparently never caught himself, but over the years, more and more information was gathered about him, some of it during the infamous enhanced interrogations in secret CIA prisons. Could he have been the courier who finally led the U.S. to bin Laden's hiding place? It is not clear, but the story makes possible sense and the idea that knowledge of him was gleaned through interrogations has revived the debate about whether brutal interrogations actually yield results.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney made that argument yesterday, as did former Bush aide Karl Rove. But others are not convinced that critical information leading to bin Laden's killing came from enhanced interrogations. Here's Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): To the best of our knowledge, based on a look, none of it came as a result of harsh interrogation practices. I mean, we're going to find out all that there is to find out about it. But at the present time, I think it was good intelligence - piece here, a piece there put together.
GJELTEN: Abusive interrogations ended more than five years ago. Secret CIA prisons are no longer in use, and the Obama administration has promised not to revive them.
At the White House today, presidential spokesman Jay Carney forcefully challenged the idea that the successful tracking of bin Laden's courier shows that maybe it's time to rethink interrogation and detention policies.
Mr. JAY CARNEY (Spokesman, White House): Reporting from detainees was just a slice of the information that has been gathered by incredibly diligent professionals over the years. And it's simply strange 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.
GJELTEN: This debate had mostly receded in recent years. But in the aftermath of the bin Laden operation, it seems to have returned.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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