Republicans Split Over Waterboarding’s Role in bin Laden’s Death

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Steve King was the first member of Congress to float the inevitable question. “Wonder what President Obama thinks of waterboarding now?” the Iowa Republican tweeted shortly after Obama announced the death of the world’s most infamous terrorist. In the days since, even as they maintain the tacit truce that bans partisan potshots in the wake of bin Laden’s killing, Capitol Hill Republicans have advanced the idea that Bush-era “enhanced-interrogation techniques” were responsible for the tip that led intelligence officials to Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.

At least two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have made this claim. “The information that eventually led us to this compound was the direct result of enhanced interrogations; one can conclude if we had not used enhanced interrogations, we would not have come to yesterday’s action,” North Carolina Senator Richard Burr told CNBC Tuesday.

Saxby Chambliss, the committee’s ranking Republican, took a similar line during yesterday’s floor debate on a resolution praising military officials for the surgical strike that killed the al-Qaeda kingpin. “This operation was made possible by information provided by enemy combatants that have been detained and interrogated by the United States,” Chambliss said. “There has been a lot of debate in this country about our detention and interrogation policy, but this is probably one of the clearest examples of the extraordinary value of the information we have been able to gather from the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. If we did not have access to this information, Osama bin Laden would likely still be operating undetected today.” House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King also asserted that waterboarding detainees at Guantanamo Bay and so-called “black site” secret prisons produced “vital information that directly led us to bin Laden.”

It’s easy to understand why supporters of waterboarding would invoke the May 1 operation to defend its use. Even as they bask in the afterglow of snaring the world’s most despised fugitive, politicians have a hard time passing up a chance to say they told you so. Obama decried waterboarding, which violates international treaties and which the U.S. had previously prosecuted as torture, framing it as an emblem of how the Bush Administration trampled American values in its stampede to fight the war on terror. No wonder the architects and defenders of the Administration’s interrogation policies, such as John Yoo and Marc Thiessen, are rushing to rehabilitate public perceptions of the practice.

And yet, arguing that the strike on bin Laden was the “direct result” of Bush Administration interrogation policies is, at best, a stretch. It’s true that high-value detainees subjected to harsh interrogation — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who was waterboarded 183 times, and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who was subjected to other interrogation techniques — provided information (or, in Mohammad’s case, raised suspicions by playing coy) that led to the identification of the courier who intelligence officials later tracked to the Abbottabad compound. But they didn’t give it up directly under the duress of waterboarding. “It’s impossible to know whether information obtained by [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] could have been obtained by other forms of interrogation,” spokesman Tommy Vietor told TIME. Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein told reporters yesterday that nabbing bin Laden was the product of “good intelligence — a piece here, a piece there,” until investigators solved the puzzle.

Which may be why some Republicans haven’t taken up the theme. “This idea—we caught Bin Laden because of waterboarding—I think is a misstatement,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters Tuesday, adding that it wasn’t an appropriate time to “celebrate” the practice. Ditto Donald Rumsfeld, who said Monday that the tip on bin Laden’s courier was garnered by “normal interrogation practices.” In an interview with Fox News last night, Michele Bachmann took pains to dodge the waterboarding question, steering clear of the loaded term as she defended “interrogation.” As the debate picks up steam, she will need to pick a side.