The chain of clues that led to the Abbottabad compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces early Monday began with human intelligence. Senior administration officials have said key members of bin Laden’s inner-circle were flagged by post-9/11 detainees under interrogation, and that has raised an inescapable question: Did the chain begin with information gleaned from “enhanced interrogation” or waterboarding, the Bush-era technique President Obama and CIA chief Leon Panetta have decried as torture?
The White House insists that not only is the answer unknowable, but ultimately moot. “It’s impossible to know whether information obtained by [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] could have been obtained by other forms of interrogation,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor tells TIME. “I think this is a distraction from the broader picture, which is that this achievement was the result of years of painstaking work by our intelligence community that drew from multiple sources.”
Distraction or not, the debate is emerging as a partisan issue in Congress, the first since post-bin Laden afterglow set in on the Hill. “We obtained that information through waterboarding,” Republican House Homeland Security Chair Peter King told Fox News unequivocally Monday night. “…We got vital information which directly led us to bin Laden.” Democratic Senate Intelligence Chair Diane Feinstein issued a direct denial.”To the best of our knowledge,” she said at a Tuesday morning press conference, “based on a look, none of it came as a result of harsh interrogation techniques.”
The Obama administration is steering clear of anything declarative. Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters Tuesday that he simply doesn’t know whether EITs could have yielded vital intelligence. “There was a mosaic of sources that lead to the identification of the people,” he said. And the White House is prepared to press the “mosaic” case aggressively.
“Multiple detainees have given us insights into networks of people who might have been close to Bin Laden. And beyond detainee reporting, solid information derived from other sources over many years ultimately helped solve an incredibly complex puzzle,” Vietor says. “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. So this argument just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”