Who Should Be Credited With Bin Laden's Death?


The dust has barely settled and the blood has barely dried from the Navy SEALs operation that took down Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden a week ago. Trash from Sunday night’s cheering crowds is still blowing around in front of the White House lawn. A hawker selling “Mission: Accomplished” commemorative T-shirts with Osama’s face crossed out is a new sight on my walk to work in downtown Washington, D.C. These cotton t-shirts are made in Pakistan, oddly enough, and are proudly printed in the USA.

The special operations in Pakistan have demonstrated how the perfect mix of strong, decisive leadership, careful intelligence, and a capable, courageous military are the keys to achieving our military objectives –  not, as some war hawks (looking at you, Donald Rumsfeld) would have us think, "enhanced interrogation techniques."

The location of Osama bin Laden’s hideout was revealed by a complex intelligence trail beginning with the interrogation of a Guantanamo detainee, and ending with a 40-minute firefight in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and a watery grave for America’s Most Wanted. Donald Trump, Rumsfeld, and other conservatives congratulate Obama on this victory. However many Republicans, still bitter over the fallout from the Bush Administration’s torture memo fiasco, are attempting to co-opt this moment by arguing that this win was facilitated by information obtained years ago by torture, including waterboarding. Former Justice Department official (and torture memo author) John Yoo, claimed in the National Review that Obama owes this success to “the tough decisions taken by the Bush administration”- code words for torture.

However, in surprising displays of humility and honesty, national security leaders of all stripes, from CIA Director Leon Panetta to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein (D - Calif.) to Senator Lindsey Graham (R - S.C.), have admitted that the information we needed came not from torture but from standard interrogation practices and top-notch intelligence operations. And wider research has shown that torture can even have the opposite effect; producing misinformation because tortured prisoners will say whatever they think the torturers want to hear.

“The bottom line is this,” said Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, “If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003.

“It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

Perhaps torture was used to extract this information, but it was not useful, or else we would have wrapped up this Special Operation years ago. Torture didn’t help us in the Bush years, and it didn’t help us this time either. What was useful was painstaking intelligence and thoughtful leadership. The next step is to address the victims that have been tortured, and to finally deal with America’s most striking torture memento by closing Guantamano Bay.

Bin Laden’s death was a huge win for the Obama administration, looking to refute the accusations of being “soft” on terror. It was a win for our brave military men (and the one dog on the mission!), all of whom returned safely. Nevertheless, let us not forget that a win for the U.S. in the War on Terror is never a win for torture. We may have won a battle, but we have not yet won the War.  

Photo Credit: lujatt