Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union." Watch Borger on "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday.
Washington (CNN) -- Osama bin Laden is dead, but the debate about torture lives on.
And the reason the controversy rages is obvious: The question of whether torture led, in one way or another, to bin Laden, according to intelligence and administration sources, is not clearly provable. Most of us don't know the entirety of the information given by the detainees who were waterboarded and those who were not. We don't know the exact sequence of events. And we don't know what information less high-value detainees provided (post-waterboarding) that could have given the CIA clues about how to get to bin Laden.
Harsh interrogation debate returns
If this were a movie, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, or KSM -- the suspected mastermind of 9/11 -- would have been tortured and then spilled the beans about his ultimate boss. In real life, it is not at all clear. "There was no 'aha' moment here where we thought, ah, this piece of information gives us the location of Osama and it's the result of torturing a detainee," said a senior administration official. "This was one of 500 pieces of a puzzle. We had hundreds of thousands of bits of information."
And did some of that information come as a result of waterboarding? That may well be the case. Or not.
Here's what we do know, at least according to current administration officials: They argue that torture played almost no role in getting to bin Laden. In fact, two of the most high-value detainees -- KSM and bin Laden chief operations man Abu Faraj al-Libi -- actually lied about the important courier when asked about him.
They were dismissive about his importance, and didn't identify him beyond the nickname the CIA already knew. The key here: The CIA already knew that the courier had been a KSM protégé.
"It was their lies that alerted us," said one senior administration official with knowledge of the operation. All in all, Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times -- and he still lied. "The help that KSM provided was inadvertent," this source said. "He didn't know what we knew."
Indeed. The CIA knew he had something to protect. The next obvious question: How did the CIA get the info on the courier's importance? How did they know Mohammed and al-Libi were lying? Apparently from a less valued al Qaeda operative, who let it be known that the courier was actually a KSM protégé and close to al-Libi, too. Was he waterboarded? We do not know for sure, although one senior administration source said he was not waterboarded. But what other methods were used? How exactly was he treated?
The politics of this is pretty obvious: The administration, which ended waterboarding -- and amid much controversy, released documents on torture from the Bush administration -- clearly wants to make the case that the trail that led to bin Laden was not the result of torture. Its left flank would be horrified if it was clearly torture that cracked the case.
Those who feel differently, of course, say that torture -- somehow, directly or indirectly -- had an impact here. Indeed, the former CIA head of counterterrorism, Jose Rodriguez, told Time this week that harsh techniques produced the information that led to bin Laden.
The current CIA director, Leon Panetta, is much less definitive on the subject. He told NBC News, "I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I'm also saying that, you know, the debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going to be an open question." Not, of course, if you're Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney or George W. Bush.
As for the American people, they're ambivalent. A CNN poll in April 2009 found the public was divided right down the middle -- 50% approved of using "harsh interrogation procedures" and 46% disapproved.
In the end, said one senior administration official, "it's impossible to know whether waterboarding was the only way to get certain kinds of information." After all, the safehouse that hid bin Laden was built six years ago -- when enhanced interrogation was in full swing -- and word of it never surfaced.
The house is empty now, but the debate will rage on.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.
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