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The Ultimate Assistant to the President

From the Scrapbook.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Times reporters knew better. Scott Shane, whose coverage of national security would fit comfortably in the pages of the Nation, was one of those reporters. The other was Charlie Savage, author most recently of Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy.

The authors pitted Bush administration officials against “human rights advocates” and former intelligence officials. They quoted Glenn Carle, a former CIA operative. Carle did not speak directly to the piece of intelligence that set the CIA on the trail to bin Laden, but he did share his opinion that coercive techniques “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.” Such procedures, he added, were “un-American.” The next day, Carle continued his campaign against enhanced interrogation on a conference call conducted by the left-wing think tank Center for American Progress​. 

If Carle was not in a position to talk specifically about the intelligence that led to bin Laden, others were. In 2007, former CIA director Mike Hayden told analysts and operatives at the agency to refocus their search for bin Laden on his courier network. In a radio interview on the afternoon before the Times piece ran, Hayden said that there is a “straight line” between the intelligence produced by interrogators and bin Laden’s death. 

But it was the comments of current CIA director Leon Panetta that were particularly newsworthy. In an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams that aired the night before the Times piece ran, Panetta confirmed that intelligence obtained through enhanced interrogations helped the agency find bin Laden. 

Williams asked Panetta about “the sourcing on the intel that ultimately led to this successful attack” and whether “it was as a result of waterboarding that we learned what we needed to learn to go after bin Laden.” 

Panetta said: “You know, Brian, in the intelligence business you work from a lot of sources of information and that was true here. We had a multiple source​—​a multiple series of sources that provided information with regards to the situation. Clearly some of it came from detainees and the interrogation, but we also had information from other sources as well.”

Williams pressed: “Turned around the other way, are you denying that waterboarding was, in part, among the tactics used to extract the intelligence that led to this successful mission?”

Panetta was clear: “No. I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, 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 have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going to be an open question.”

To some extent, then, Barack Obama owes his singular national security achievement to interrogation practices that he condemned for years and finally banned as president. And the confirmation of that deeply ironic point comes from the two most recent heads of the CIA​—​including the man that Obama selected for the job and has now chosen to run the Pentagon. 

The Times, however, did not find this news fit to print. They ignored it.

A third source with deep knowledge of the intelligence also contradicted the paper’s analysis. Jose Rodriguez, who ran the CIA’s counterterrorism center from 2002 to 2005, said that the intelligence extracted from two high-level al Qaeda operatives after EITs was “the lead information” that made the operation possible. Rodriguez told Time magazine: “Information provided by KSM and Abu Faraj al Libbi about bin Laden’s courier was the lead information that eventually led to the location of [bin Laden’s] compound and the operation that led to his death.”

Readers of the New York Times do not know this. The paper neglected to mention the assessments of Rodriguez, Hayden, and, most astonishingly, Leon Panetta. Perhaps that helps explain why weekday circulation is down nearly 9 percent since last year.


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