Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Debate rages about role of torture

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
Click to play
Did waterboarding help catch bin Laden?
  • Gloria Borger: The killing of Osama bin Laden has brought new life to the torture debate
  • She says one key player was waterboarded 183 times -- and still lied
  • Information developed in other ways played a role, Borger says
  • Borger: Politics are obvious as critics downplay waterboarding and defenders cite its value

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.

Graphic photos of bin Laden raid out
Ex-Navy SEAL on bin Laden raid
Interrogation's role in finding bin Laden
Intelligence that led to bin Laden death

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.

Watch The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer weekdays at 4pm to 6pm ET and Saturdays at 6pm ET. For the latest from The Situation Room click here.

Part of complete coverage on
Q&A: al Qaeda's power struggle
The appointment of a former Egyptian army lieutenant as the interim leader of al Qaeda suggests a power struggle within the Islamist organization.
Jihadists eager to avenge Osama
From Morocco to the Himalayas, online forums associated with al Qaeda overflow with declarations that global jihad will continue.
Who are al Qaeda's most wanted?
He was its founder and strategic guiding force, but now that Osama bin Laden is dead, who are al Qaeda's most wanted leaders?
U.S. to speak to bin Laden's wives
The United States will be given access to Osama bin Laden's wives, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told CNN Tuesday.
Children recall bin Laden's compound
Children in Abbottabad said they noticed oddities at bin Laden's compound but were oblivious he was hiding in the city.
Exclusive: Bin Laden's young bride
Amal al-Sadah was "a quiet, polite, easygoing and confident teenager" who came from a big, conservative family in Yemen.
Roots of terror untouched by death
As the death of Osama bin Laden reverberates around the world the root causes of extremism are apparently largely being ignored.
Al Qaeda threats, terror plans surface
Saber-rattling al Qaeda warnings against the U.S. emerged as the killing of Osama bin Laden continued to yield a trove of intelligence.
Featured Deal |