Ex-CIA Counterterror Chief: ‘Enhanced Interrogation’ Led U.S. to bin Laden

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A former head of counterterrorism at the CIA, who was investigated last year by the Justice Department for the destruction of videos showing senior al-Qaeda officials being interrogated, says the harsh questioning of terrorism suspects produced the information that eventually led to Osama bin Laden’s death.

Jose Rodriguez ran the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 2002 to 2005, the period when top al-Qaeda leaders Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and Abu Faraj al-Libbi were taken into custody and subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) at secret prisons overseas. KSM was subjected to waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other techniques. Al-Libbi was not waterboarded, but other EITs were used on him.

“Information provided by KSM and Abu Faraj al-Libbi about bin Laden’s courier was the lead information that eventually led to the location of [bin Laden’s] compound and the operation that led to his death,” Rodriguez tells TIME in his first public interview. Rodriguez was cleared of charges in the video-destruction investigation last year.

(More on TIME.com: See CIA Director Leon Panetta’s first interview following the Osama bin Laden raid.)

Rodriguez’s assertion drew criticism from the White House. “There is no way that information obtained by [EITs] was the decisive intelligence that led us directly to bin Laden,” says National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “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.”

Rodriguez agrees that other events played a role in developing the intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts. And he says that despite widespread focus on KSM, al-Libbi’s information was the most important. “Both KSM and al-Libbi were held at CIA black sites and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques,” Rodriguez says. “Abu Faraj was not waterboarded, but his information on the courier was key.”

Al-Libbi told interrogators that the courier would carry messages from bin Laden to the outside world only every two months or so. “I realized that bin Laden was not really running his organization. You can’t run an organization and have a courier who makes the rounds every two months,” Rodriguez says. “So I became convinced then that this was a person who was just a figurehead and was not calling the shots, the tactical shots, of the organization. So that was significant.”

(More on TIME.com: See pictures of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideaway.)

While reports suggest that the information KSM provided on the courier came weeks or months after he was subjected to EITs, Rodriguez says al-Libbi’s tips came just one week after he was subjected to the harsh treatment.

Former George W. Bush officials say the use of EITs is misunderstood. “The main thing that people misunderstand about the program is, it was intended to encourage compliance,” says John McLaughlin, deputy director of the CIA during the period in which waterboarding was used. “It wasn’t set out to torture people. It was never conceived of as a torture program.”

One former senior intelligence official says that “once KSM decided resistance was unwise, he started spilling his guts to the agency and started providing lots of info, like the noms de guerre of couriers and explaining how al-Qaeda worked.” Rodriguez says, “It’s a mistake to say this was about inflicting pain. These measures were about instilling a sense of hopelessness, and that led them to compliance.” None of the Bush officials made a clear distinction between inducing compliance and torture.

Rodriguez says the U.S. is unlikely to go back to using EITs, but he thinks it should. “We’ve given up on this, and so much has happened that it would be very difficult for any Administration to bring it back. It’s unfortunate because … it will be hard for people in important positions to be able to deal with terrorists.”

President Obama and his top intelligence officials believe waterboarding constitutes torture. The U.S. has prosecuted those who have used waterboarding in the past.

The White House says the debate over whether to use techniques that could constitute torture is beside the point. “This is a distraction from the broader picture, which is that this achievement [of bin Laden’s death] was the result of years of painstaking work by our intelligence community that drew from multiple sources,” says the National Security Council’s Vietor. “It’s not fair to the scores of people who did this work over many years to suggest that this is somehow all the result of waterboarding eight years ago.”

See Obama in the Situation Room: “Visual on Geronimo.”