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Declassify Intelligence that Led to Bin Laden

8:15 AM, May 1, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and National Clandestine Service, has made quite a splash in the past couple of days. Building on arguments in his new book, Hard Measures, Rodriguez has dealt with all of the most controversial aspects of the CIA’s response to 9/11 in his television appearances and op-eds. In particular, Rodriguez has offered a spirited defense of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) used on senior al Qaeda operatives.

Osama bin Laden

And, as Marc Thiessen points out in a column for the Washington Post, Rodriguez’s book directly contradicts a claim made by former House speaker Nancy Pelosi – that she was not briefed on the use of waterboarding on top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in 2002. Rodriguez says she was. Thiessen concludes, rightly, that the evidence bearing on this dispute (in particular, a cable summarizing the briefing) should be declassified as that is the only way to settle the conflicting accounts. 

That’s not all that should be declassified. In his own column for the Washington Post, Rodriguez claims that the EITs used on an al Qaeda detainee are what led to crucial intelligence on Osama bin Laden’s courier. That intelligence, when compiled with other evidence, provided the first steps to locating bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. 

All of the pertinent files dealing with Rodriguez’s Washington Post op-ed, or at least the key ones, should be declassified as his testimony directly contradicts what the Obama administration and top Democrats on the Hill have claimed.

Here are the key paragraphs from Rodriguez’s op-ed:

In 2004, an al-Qaeda terrorist was captured trying to communicate with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the terror organization’s operations in Iraq. That captured terrorist was taken to a secret CIA prison — or “black site” — where, initially, he was uncooperative. After being subjected to some “enhanced interrogation techniques” — techniques authorized by officials at the most senior levels of the U.S. government and that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel confirmed were consistent with U.S. law — the detainee became compliant. He was not one of the three al-Qaeda operatives who underwent waterboarding, the harshest of the hard measures.

Once this terrorist decided that non-cooperation was a non-starter, he told us many things — including that bin Laden had given up communicating via telephone, radio or Internet, and depended solely on a single courier who went by “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.” …

Rodriguez does not name the al Qaeda detainee in question, but his description matches a terrorist named Hassan Ghul.

Shortly after bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Reuters cited “multiple U.S. intelligence officials” who said the “real breakthrough that led to bin Laden came from” Ghul. Two U.S. officials acknowledged that Ghul wasn’t waterboarded, according to Reuters, but “he may well have been subjected to other coercive CIA tactics, possibly including stress positions, sleep deprivation and being slammed into a wall.” It was Ghul who “prompted” CIA officials to focus on Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti after other detainees had offered only “tantalizing hints” for years.

Ghul was not the first al Qaeda detainee to discuss Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, but the specifics of what Ghul said about al Kuwaiti are what made CIA officials key in on him. Indeed, leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) documents connect Ghul to a who’s who of al Qaeda operatives. It is therefore easy to see why Ghul would know important details about bin Laden’s operation.

Leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) files

The leaked JTF-GTMO file for Abu Zubaydah notes that Zubaydah sent Ghul “to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to raise money for [Zubaydah’s] plans to conduct attacks against Israel” in 2000. Deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi was supposed to help Zubaydah execute the plot against Israel, according to the U.S. government’s biography of Zubayah. But that may not be how the money from Zubaydah’s donors was spent. That same biography notes:

Although not believed to be directly linked to the attacks on 11 September 2001, the $50,000 that Abu Zubaydah received from Saudi donors and passed to al Qaeda’s senior leadership for his Israel plot may have been used for the attacks.

That is, the money Ghul collected from Saudi donors on behalf of Zubaydah may have been used to fund the 9/11 attacks.

Another leaked JTF-GTMO file says that the “Hassan Ghul network…financed the al Qaeda terrorist organization.” And in yet another JTF-GTMO file, Ghul is described as the brother-in-law of Ahmed Gulam Rabbani, who worked directly for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

And then there is the leaked JTF-GTMO file for Abdu Ali Sharqawi, a top al Qaeda facilitator who is still held in Cuba. In that file, JTF-GTMO says Sharqawi “personally worked with” Ghul, who is described as “a well-known al Qaeda operative known for providing false passports, IDs, and transportation from Pakistan to Afghanistan.”

The leaked JTF-GTMO files also show that Ghul was, in fact, a prolific source and identified numerous al Qaeda detainees. One of them is Fayiz al Kandari, an especially well-connected Kuwaiti who both Ghul and Zubaydah identified as “a scholar who brought many religious books with him” to the Khaldan terrorist training camp.

Declassify relevant intelligence

In the hyper-partisan debate over the intelligence that led to the killing of bin Laden, the Democrats have claimed that the CIA’s coercive interrogation practices were not what led to bin Laden’s courier. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other top detainees never came clean about Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti even after being subjected to the EITs. Rodriguez himself says that the CIA “intercepted communications KSM sent to fellow detainees” in which KSM said: “Tell them nothing about the courier!” So, the Democrats and the CIA’s detractors conclude, the techniques were fruitless in the hunt for al Qaeda’s master.

The story of Hassan Ghul suggests a more complicated narrative. The CIA never claimed that KSM or other top al Qaeda operatives told authorities everything they knew. Declassified CIA files note that detainees withheld a certain amount of information from authorities no matter what. But in the case of Ghul, according to Rodriguez and other accounts, it was after the EITs were employed that Ghul spoke at length about Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti. And it was this testimony that led the CIA on the right path.

According to the accounts summarized here, including Rodriguez’s, the key intelligence that led the U.S. to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan came out of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program – regardless of what techniques were or were not used. To clear up this matter once and for all, the relevant intelligence should be declassified and released to the public.

And there is at least one more issue that deserves declassification. Hassan Ghul, the al Qaeda terrorist who made authorities aware of Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti’s instrumental role, was reportedly transferred to Pakistani custody and released. According to some reports, he has rejoined his comrades in arms.

We deserve to know why such an important terrorist was freed.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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