Congress Pivots to Pakistan and Interrogation Questions

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The answers that came at the end of the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden have unleashed almost as many questions of their own. Two in particular are likely to take center stage on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks. The first, which Michael Crowley considered here, is whether the revelation that bin Laden was hiding in a conspicuous compound in a neighborhood dotted with Pakistani military officials is cause for the U.S. to reassess its shaky relationship with the nuclear-armed nation.

In a briefing this morning, Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoed her colleagues’ alarm about the nature and location of bin Laden’s hideout, a sprawling, three-story structure topped by barbed wire and shielded by high blast walls, suggesting it raised concerns about whether the U.S. ally had harbored the world’s most-wanted fugitive. “If they didn’t know, why didn’t they know? Why didn’t they pay more attention to it?” Feinstein said. “Was this just benign indifference, or was it indifference with a motive? I don’t know and we need to find that out.”

But as Crowley writes:

Even if contrary evidence were to emerge indicating that Pakistan had provided bin Laden with safe harbor, would the U.S. actually cut Pakistan off? Maybe not. For the U.S., Pakistan is like a troublemaking dependent son whom the father refuses to cut off for fear his life will take an even darker turn.

Feinstein said it was “premature” to speculate about slashing aid to Pakistan, which she called “ground zero” in the fight against terrorism. “Here’s the problem: If we don’t [provide aid], what then? Does China step in?” she said. “The Pakistanis have been good at going after some terrorists. On the other hand, they’ve given the Haqqani network some protection. So they have very subtly walked both sides of the street.”

The other key question is whether the Bush administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay and at so-called “black site” prisons prompted detainees to cough up tips that allowed intelligence officials to locate bin Laden’s courier, who unwittingly led them to the terrorist mastermind’s lair.

Even as they tip their hats to President Obama, Republicans have tried to rehabilitate the image of the enhanced-interrogation techniques Obama decried. House Homeland Security Chair Peter King told Bill O’Reilly that the nom de guerre of the al-Qaeda terror chief’s courier was gleaned through waterboarding. “And so for those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say that it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information that directly led us to bin Laden,” he said. It’s far from clear that King’s claim is accurate. Senator Lindsey Graham on Tuesday disputed the argument that waterboarding solved the bin Laden puzzle. “I don’t think this is a time for celebrating waterboarding,” he said. Even Donald Rumsfeld argued that the lead to bin Laden’s courier was obtained through “normal interrogation approaches.”

Feinstein told reporters this morning that for at least a year and a half, Democratic staffers (Republicans “pulled out of the study,” she said) have been combing through more than 3 million cables, emails and dossiers as part of a review of the interrogation of detainees. “To the best of our knowledge, based on a look, none of it came as a result of harsh interrogation practices,” Feinstein said, disputing Republican claims that bin Laden’s death vindicated such practices. “No, absolutely not,” she said. “I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted, and in my view, nothing justifies the kind of procedures that were used.”

Feinstein also said she saw no need for the U.S. to release photos of bin Laden’s body, which the Obama administration is weighing in part to quash skepticism over whether it had actually found its man. “The DNA has been dispositive,” she said, noting that the photos are reportedly graphic and could inflame bin Laden’s followers and incite violence. The senator urged restraint. “This isn’t over. This is just one step. And I think to overly dramatize it doesn’t do a tremendous service.”