By Catherine Herridge, ,
Published December 23, 2015
Years of intelligence gathering, including details gleaned from controversial interrogations of Al Qaeda members during the Bush administration, ultimately led the Navy SEALs who killed Usama bin Laden to his compound in Pakistan.
The initial threads of intelligence began surfacing in 2003 and came in the form of information about a trusted bin Laden courier, a senior U.S. official told Fox News on condition of anonymity. The information included an alias for the courier. Bin Laden had cut off all traditional lines of communication with his network by this time because the Al Qaeda leader knew the U.S. intelligence community was monitoring him. It was said that he also didn't even trust his most loyal men to know his whereabouts and instead communicated only through couriers.
But it was four years later, in 2007, that terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay military prison started giving up information that led to the identification of the key courier.
Around this time, the use of enhanced interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, were being denounced as torture by critics of the Bush administration. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney came under intense pressure for supporting rough treatment of prisoners. Critics claimed that any information given under duress simply couldn't be trusted.
It is an argument that Bush and Cheney strongly rejected then, and now.
"I would assume that the enhanced interrogation program that we put in place produced some of the results that led to bin Laden's ultimate capture," Cheney told Fox News on Monday, a hint of vindication in his voice.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Tuesday that to the best of her knowledge enhanced interrogation techniques did not yield the information that led to bin Laden.
The White House on Tuesday sought to downplay the role that Bush-era interrogations played in gathering the information that led to bin Laden's death.
"Some of it came from individuals who were in custody. Some of it came from human sources," counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told Fox News. "But there was no single bit of information that was instrumental."
Brennan acknowledged that "those in detention" provided key information, but stressed that it was obtained in a variety of different ways.
"Sometimes they gave us information willingly," Brennan said, adding that sometimes they gave misinformation and sometimes they inadvertently spilled clues that unlocked other intelligence.
"This was a painstaking ... body of work that was done that was over the course of many, many years," he said.
Former Bush administration officials, as well as Republican lawmakers, have given President Obama and his national security team great credit for the daring operation Sunday that ended with bin Laden being shot to death by a CIA-led Navy SEALs team. But they also point to indications that the controversial interrogation program and information gleaned from detainees at Guantanamo Bay and at secret overseas prisons may have played a key role, in claiming Bush-era policies helped set the stage for Sunday's success.
"This really does stretch over two presidencies," former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News on Tuesday. "There's a long train here, and it leads back, I think, to good counterterrorism policies that were put in place in 2001."
Information was given up by prisoners, including 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. U.S. officials described the courier as a talented protege and trusted associate of both Mohammed and Al Qaeda's No. 3 leader at the time, Abu Faraj al Libi. Both men were held at Guantanamo Bay.
U.S. officials were told the courier's name was known only to bin Laden's innermost circle.
By 2009, the U.S. intelligence community had a rough idea of where the courier operated: a region north of Islamabad, Pakistan. It was another year before this compound was identified in August 2010 as a likely home for a senior Al Qaeda member.
The compound was eight times the size of other homes in the affluent neighborhood, and the impressive 18-foot-high walls with barbed wire drew scrutiny from intelligence analysts.
By early this year, information from multiple intelligence sources, including the now-shuttered harsh interrogation program, as well as CIA operatives and Special Operations Forces on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan, were building a clearer case that the compound might house bin Laden. Officials found out that there were three families living there. In addition, a significantly older man, who was shown deference by the group, was not required to work on the compound.
Critics of the Bush-era interrogation programs have suggested that the harsh interrogations were not essential to tracking bin Laden and that the information could have been obtained by more humane means. But for Cheney and other Bush administration alumni, Sunday's raid stands as proof their system worked.