During his acceptance speech last night, President Obama claimed, “I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have.”
The clear implication is that President Bush wasn’t focused on the “terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11.” This is nonsense and a good example of how Obama has politicized the fight against al Qaeda for his own benefit.
The network of al Qaeda operatives who actually planned the 9/11 attacks, under Osama bin Laden’s direction, was rolled up almost entirely during the Bush years. This includes 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had more to do with planning the attack than any other single terrorist, and his henchmen. Not every terrorist who was responsible for 9/11 has been brought to justice, but KSM’s network was chiefly responsible for the attack itself. It is indisputable that the U.S. government and its allies abroad rolled up KSM’s network long before President Obama was inaugurated.
President Obama’s signature counterterrorism success is, of course, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Along with some successful drone strikes in northern Pakistan (a continuation and expansion of the Bush administration’s policy), this is what Obama was really referring to.
Obama deserves credit for ordering that risky strike deep in the heart of Pakistan. But it is disingenuous to imply that President Bush wasn’t focused on getting bin Laden until the very end of his term.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden has explained that Bush remained intent on getting bin Laden. "When I was director, I would go to the White House once a week to brief the president," Hayden told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March 2012.
“And President Bush would start out every briefing with the same question. 'So, Mike, how are we doing?' And he was asking about bin Laden.”
Hayden continued, “I would always assure him that we were trying to get him”
Not only did Bush remain focused on bin Laden, the key piece of intelligence that led to the al Qaeda master’s compound came out of the Bush years and, in particular, two detention platforms Obama has repeatedly criticized as un-American.
By now, the story of how the CIA tracked bin Laden’s most trusted courier to a doorstep in Abbottabad, Pakistan is well known. Hayden has explained that this courier was identified as a key link to bin Laden during Bush’s second term.
During an interview on CNN days after bin Laden’s death, Fareed Zakaria asked Hayden, “So you took news of this courier in to President Bush many years ago, right?”
We did. I think it was about four years ago, in 2007. We - we had built up sufficient lead information on the name of the courier that we thought it was ready for presidential primetime. So we briefed it to the president, not as something eminent but as our most promising lead to track down Bin Laden because, frankly, Fareed, the trail had been quite cold for a - a long period of time.
Hayden continued, explaining that “one of the more prominent leads we had at the beginning of this exercise was partial identity information that came out of detainees that we were holding in our so-called black sites.”
The intelligence from these detainees was then combined with other types of intelligence (“one pebble at a time,” Hayden said) to ultimately track down bin Laden.
Critics of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program are quick to point out that high-value detainees did not spit out the courier’s name and describe his importance after being waterboarded. But they are relying on a caricature of the program, which wasn’t all about waterboarding – only 3 detainees in the CIA’s custody were waterboarded. And only about one-third of the 100 detainees in the CIA’s custody were subjected to any form of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) at all.
One of these detainees was Hassan Ghul, who was subjected to some EITs, but not waterboarding. Ghul, a key al Qaeda facilitator, was captured attempting to deliver a message to the head of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004.
According to former CIA official Jose Rodriguez, Jr., Ghul told authorities that bin Laden “depended solely on a single courier who went by ‘Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.’”
A separate account by Reuters, and other reporting, confirms that Ghul was the detainee who offered up this key piece of intelligence.
It was after Ghul spoke about al-Kuwaiti that CIA officials went back and pulled all of the intelligence on him. It turned out that other detainees, both in the CIA’s custody and at Guantanamo, had also talked about the courier, even though they were not as clear about his role as Ghul was. Some detainees, such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, tried to dismiss the courier’s importance entirely.
But this is how the cat-and-mouse game of interrogations worked. The CIA’s documents show that they expected many al Qaeda detainees to hide some of their secrets no matter what interrogation techniques were used. And while KSM did not directly give up the goods on al-Kuwaiti, he did with respect to other key operatives.
The bottom line is this: The intelligence that led to bin Laden’s courier, which led to bin Laden himself, came out of the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation programs. Other intelligence was used as well, but there is no material dispute over the provenance of the original intelligence on the courier.
President Obama has frequently criticized the programs that led to his most noteworthy counterterrorism success. Obama shut down the CIA’s program entirely and attempted to do the same with Guantanamo.
And instead of giving a nod to his predecessor on Thursday night, and acknowledging that the raid that got bin Laden was a victory for his political opponents as well, President Obama resorted to a cheap political attack.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.