WASHINGTON — An Al Qaeda suspect who was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques at a secret CIA prison in early 2004 provided a clue, the nom de guerre of a mysterious courier, that ultimately proved crucial to finding Osama bin Laden, officials said Wednesday.
The CIA had approved use of sleep deprivation, slapping, nudity, water dousing and other coercive techniques at the now-closed CIA "black site" in Poland where the Pakistani-born detainee, Hassan Ghul, was held, according to a 2005 Justice Department memo, which cited Ghul by name. Two U.S. officials said Wednesday that some of those now-prohibited practices were directed at Ghul.
Ghul was not waterboarded, the notorious interrogation technique that simulates drowning and which critics describe as torture.
Two other CIA prisoners -- Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his successor, Abu Faraj Libbi -- gave their interrogators false information about the courier after they were waterboarded repeatedly, U.S. officials said.
Those lies also played a role in the decade-long manhunt, however. Over time, they were viewed as evidence by CIA analysts that Bin Laden's top deputies were trying to shield a figure who might be a link to the Al Qaeda leader's hide-out, according to U.S. officials briefed on the analysis. "The fact that they were covering it up suggested he was important," a U.S. official said.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 14, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 95 words Type of Material: Correction
Trail to Bin Laden: A May 5 article in Section A about the search for Osama bin Laden quoted a U.S. Justice Department memo from 2005 that approved the use of harsh interrogation techniques against a CIA detainee, identified in the story as Hassan Ghul, who provided important information in the search for Osama bin Laden. A U.S. official familiar with the intelligence subsequently said that the memo actually refers to a different CIA detainee, Janat Gul, and that there is no evidence that Gul provided information that assisted in the search for Bin Laden.
In the end, intelligence gleaned from interviews with numerous detainees, high-tech eavesdropping and surveillance, and other investigative spadework provided insights on people close to Bin Laden. No one source or bit of intelligence was so decisive or crucial that it instantly solved the puzzle or ended the painstaking hunt for the world's most wanted terrorist, officials said. They stressed that none of the three most critical pieces of information -- the courier's name, the area of Pakistan in which he operated and the location of the compound in which Bin Laden was living -- came from detainees.
The nuances of that complex chain of events were often lost Wednesday amid a renewed public debate about the efficacy and morality of coercive interrogations that the CIA carried out under President George W. Bush.
"I think the issue has been mischaracterized on both sides," said a former CIA official who was involved in internal debate over the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques program at the time. "The people who say 'enhanced interrogation techniques' directly led to catching Bin Laden are wrong, and the people who say they had nothing to do with it are also wrong."
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said it was impossible to know whether the same information could have been obtained without using those techniques, which have been banned under President Obama.
"The debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches, I think, is always going to be an open question," Panetta told NBC News on Tuesday.
Panetta did not say, and other administration officials adamantly denied, that coercive interrogation techniques directly led to finding Bin Laden.
"There is no way that information obtained by EITs was the decisive intelligence that led us directly to Bin Laden," said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, using the acronym for enhanced interrogation techniques.
"It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there," Vietor said. "The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003."
The Bush administration had abandoned waterboarding by 2004 and closed the CIA's web of secret prisons. All the detainees were transferred to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by 2007.
The Obama administration has forsworn those interrogation tactics. The CIA has sharply increased the use of armed Predator drones and military commando raids to kill terrorism suspects or has passed intelligence tips to other governments to capture or kill them.
Things were much different in January 2004, when Kurdish military forces in northern Iraq picked up Ghul, an Al Qaeda courier who was carrying a letter from Iraqi terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi to Bin Laden.
Ghul quickly disappeared into the CIA's network of secret prisons and became one of 28 detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, according to the Justice Department memo, which was released in 2009.
At first, his interrogators sought authorization to use "attention grasp, walling [slamming a detainee against a wall], facial hold, facial slap, wall standing, stress positions and sleep deprivation," according to the memo.