Finding Osama Bin Laden

The recent death of Osama Bin Laden is re-igniting the debate over coercive interrogation, with some claiming that recent success vindicates whatever practices have been used in the past, supported by an early-breaking AP story:

Officials say CIA interrogators in secret overseas prisons developed the first strands of information that ultimately led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Current and former U.S. officials say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, provided the nom de guerre of one of bin Laden's most trusted aides. The CIA got similar information from Mohammed's successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics inside CIA prisons in Poland and Romania.

Unfortunately for waterboarding advocates, a longer version of the story adds some crucial detail:

Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic. It took years of work for intelligence agencies to identify the courier's real name, which officials are not disclosing.

Despite being waterboarded 183 times in March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not divulge actionable intelligence until at least 2006, withholding the information under torture. KSM revealed it only under the sophisticated non-coercive persuasion favored by professional interrogators. Donald Rumsfeld agrees that there was no waterboarding of the courier source. An ICRC report makes no mention of Abu Faraj al-Libi being waterboarded leading some to assume that he wasn't, and he only corroborated KSM's story after he had been in custody for a year.

Waterboarding advocates claim that coercion is necessary because only extraordinary techniques can produce extraordinary information. The timeline leading to Bin Laden's death tells the opposite story. While all interrogation methods can potentially to produce some information, coercive methods are most effective at producing confessions. Persuasion is most effective at producing information.

(Note to journalists: Several news reports erroneously confuse two different but similarly named prisoners. Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured in November 2001, reported dead by alleged suicide in May 2009. His rendition and torture in Egypt produced false confessions linking Al Qaeda and Iraq. Abu Faraj al-Libbi was the source captured in May 2005 who corroborated the information obtained from KSM.)