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The Senate report proves once and for all that torture didn't lead us to Osama bin Laden

Bin Laden with a son in an undated photo.
Bin Laden with a son in an undated photo.
Getty Images/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's torture program is very, very clear: torture didn't lead the CIA to Osama bin Laden. Citing a wealth of internal CIA documentation, the Senate report shows pretty conclusively that the most important intelligence about bin Laden was acquired by other means.

But that's not stopping the CIA, or its allies in the press, from claiming otherwise. "Information that CIA obtained from detainees played a role, along with other streams of intelligence, in finding Usama bin Laden," the agency's "fact sheet" on the Senate report reads.

This is wrong. Here's what you need to know to understand why.

First off, this is a debate over how the US found bin Laden's courier, who went by the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. The CIA used Kuwaiti to locate bin Laden — and the CIA's defenders claim that their torture program led to Kuwaiti.

That's not what happened. According to internal CIA records cited in the Senate report, key intelligence on Kuwaiti — "including information the CIA would later cite as pivotal" in finding Bin Laden — was acquired by 2002. The sources included:

  1. An email address the agency linked to Kuwaiti.
  2. A phone number found in the records of several people close to bin Laden.
  3. Interrogations of detainees by unspecified foreign governments.
  4. Phone taps on various other individuals linked to al-Qaeda.

As the Senate report details, the CIA didn't acquire any intelligence on al-Kuwaiti via torture until 2003. The CIA had begun trying to find and identify al-Kuwaiti well before any of that information was in.

The best intelligence the CIA detainee program yielded on al-Kuwaiti came from Hassan Ghul, captured in Iraq on January 24, 2004. According to internal US government records, Ghul told the US government that al-Kuwaiti was bin Laden's "closest assistant" and that the al-Qaeda chief "likely lived in a house with a family somewhere in Pakistan."

Ghul told the CIA all of that before they decided to torture him. "The most accurate CIA detainee-related intelligence was obtained in early 2004, from a CIA detainee who had not yet been subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques," the report finds. "During and after the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques, Ghul provided no other information of substance on al-Kuwaiti."

This early intelligence, together with on-the-ground fieldwork and electronic surveillance, eventually located Kuwaiti. Torture had nothing to do with it.

In a 2012 CIA document entitled "Lessons for the Hunt for Bin Laden," the CIA claimed that 16 of its detainees provided information on al-Kuwaiti — and that all but three of them gave their information after torture.

According to the Senate report, this is flatly false. CIA records say that seven of the 13 gave up information before being tortured. Three of the remaining six  provided intelligence that "the CIA assessed to be fabricated and intentionally misleading," the report finds. Two others "provided limited, non-unique corroborative reporting." Crucially, none of these five were interrogated by standard techniques before being tortured — so it's possible their (mostly unimportant) information could have been arrived at through regular means.

That leaves one detainee, Abu Zubaydah. He wasn't very helpful. "The first reference [in the CIA records] to Abu Zubaydah providing information related to al-Kuwaiti is on July 7, 2003, when Abu Zubaydah denied knowing the name," the Senate report finds. In 2005, Zubaydah gave information that the CIA decided was "speculative."

Bottom line? There is no solid evidence that torture helped catch bin Laden — and reams of evidence to the contrary.