Torturous evasions

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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CIA Director Leon Panetta stomped on the White House’s political script when he told Tuesday night’s broadcast of NBC Nightly News that the waterboarding of jihadi detainees contributed information that led to the location and killing of Osama bin Laden.

“We had multiple series of sources that provided information with regards to this situation… clearly some of it came from detainees [and] they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of those detainees,” he told NBC anchor Brian Williams.

When asked by Williams if water-boarding was part of the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Panetta simply said “that’s correct.”

Throughout the day, White House officials had pushed back at claims that water-boarding or other enhanced interrogation techniques produced the information that eventually led to Osama bin Laden.

“The fact is that no single piece of information led to the successful mission,” White House spokesman Carney told reporters at Tuesday’s White House press conference. He also said that administration officials are not reconsidering the administration’s opposition to tougher interrogation practices. There is “no change whatsoever,” he said.

Several former Bush administration officials previously told TheDC that there’s persuasive evidence that the intelligence surrounding bin Laden’s location stemmed from enhanced interrogation of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or other terror suspects at CIA black sites around the world.

Data from tough interrogations has been integrated with information that emerged from softer interrogations at Guantanamo Bay.

But several Democratic-affiliated constituencies are fiercely opposed to enhanced interrogations. They include much of the legal bar, progressive groups such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, and anti-war groups. Obama courted all three groups during the 2008 election.

Attorney General Eric Holder followed Carney’s script at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday morning. There “was a mosaic of sources that led to the identification of people who led” authorities to bin Laden, he said, when asked about the role of tough interrogation. When Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, asked Holder if any pieces of that mosaic of sources were a result of enhanced interrogation techniques, Holder evaded the question, saying he wasn’t sure.

“Multiple detainees provided insights,” Carney told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Reporting from detainees is a slice of the information that has been gathered by incredibly diligent specialists over the years in the intelligence community, and it simply strains credulity to suggest that a piece of information that may nor may not have been gathered eight years ago somehow directly led to the successful mission on Sunday,” he said.

“That’s just not the case.”

Carney did not explicitly reject the claim that tough interrogations provided the first clue – reportedly, the nickname of bin Laden’s personal courier – that seems to have indirectly and eventually led to bin Laden’s hideout.

During the House hearing, Lungren asked Holder if the mission against bin Laden would have been illegal, if any of the intelligence regarding his whereabouts came from enhanced interrogation. Holder evaded the legal question by using a tortured response, saying “I think that, in terms of the attenuation between those acts that might have been problematic and the action that was taken just two days ago I think was sufficiently long so that the action would still be considered legal.”

In his NBC interview where he said water-boarding was used in the interrogations that provided the data, Panetta did leave his colleagues in the administration a political fig-leaf. “Whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches,” he said,  “I think is always going to be an open question.”

TheDC’s Matt Boyle co-wrote this article.