Abu Zubaydah was later waterboarded 83 times by the CIA. This form of simulated drowning is generally considered torture, but none of it produced much in the way of useful information. In the end, the multiple waterboardings of Abu Zubaydah provided no specific leads on any plots, although clearly his role as an al Qaeda logistician did give him insights into the organization and its personnel.
Eight years more
And were interrogations of al Qaeda detainees anyway really the key to how bin Laden was ultimately found? After all, it still took another eight years after the interrogation of the 20th hijacker, al-Qahtani, to find bin Laden.
Indeed, there were a number of key breaks during those eight years that had nothing to do with the interrogations of al Qaeda detainees. A large break, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials, came in 2007, when a foreign intelligence service that they won't identify told the CIA that the Kuwaiti's real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed.
This lead seems very likely to have come from the Pakistanis given the fact that "the Kuwaiti" was, in fact, a Pakistani whose family had settled in Kuwait and who from 2002 onward was back living in Pakistan. (In "Zero Dark Thirty," the break about identifying the Kuwaiti's real name is explained as coming from Morocco's intelligence service.)
It would still take three more years for the CIA to find Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed in Pakistan, a country with a population of 180 million people. This involved painstaking work going through reams of phone conversations to try to locate him through his family and circle of associates.
In June 2010, the Kuwaiti and his brother both made changes in the way they communicated on cell phones that suddenly opened up the possibility of the "geolocation" of both their phones, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials.
Finally, sometime in the late summer of 2010, the Kuwaiti received a call from an old friend in the Gulf, a man whom U.S. intelligence officials were monitoring. "We've missed you. Where have you been?" asked the friend. The Kuwaiti responded elliptically. "I'm back with the people I was with before." There was a tense pause in the conversation as the friend mulled over that response. Likely realizing that the Kuwaiti was back in bin Laden's inner circle, the caller replied after some hesitation, "May God facilitate."
The CIA took this call as a confirmation that the Kuwaiti was still working with al Qaeda, a matter that officials were still not entirely sure about.
The National Security Agency was listening to this exchange and through geolocation technologies was able to zero in on the Kuwaiti's cell phone in northwestern Pakistan. But the Kuwaiti practiced rigorous operational security and was always careful to insert the battery in his phone and turn it on only when he was at least an hour's drive away from the Abbottabad compound where he and bin Laden were living. To find out where the Kuwaiti lived by monitoring his cell phone would only go so far.
In August 2010, a Pakistani "asset" working for the CIA tracked the Kuwaiti to the crowded city of Peshawar, where bin Laden had founded al Qaeda more than two decades earlier. In the years when bin Laden was residing in the Abbottabad compound, the Kuwaiti would regularly transit though Peshawar, as it is the gateway to the Pakistani tribal regions where al Qaeda had regrouped in the years after 9/11.
Once the CIA asset had identified the Kuwaiti's distinctive white Suzuki SUV with a spare tire on its back in Peshawar, the CIA was able to follow him as he drove home to Abbottabad, more than two hours drive to the east.
The large compound where the Kuwaiti finally alighted immediately drew interest at the agency because it didn't have phone or Internet service, which implied its owners wanted to stay off the grid. Soon, some CIA officials would come to believe that bin Laden himself was living there.
Every form of intelligence-gathering
The sequence of events that led the CIA to bin Laden involved first interrogations that surfaced the alias of bin Laden's courier. That was then followed by key information coming from a "liaison" relationship with a foreign intelligence service that supplied the real name of the courier, which was then followed by U.S. signals intelligence (known as SIGINT) that tracked the courier's phone to a particular city in Pakistan and finally human intelligence ("HUMINT," CIA spies on the ground) who tracked the courier to Abbottabad.
In short, the hunt for bin Laden could not have been accomplished without every form of American intelligence-gathering. And certainly, "Zero Dark Thirty" tries to make that point clear with gripping scenes of CIA officers using direction-finding technology to zero in on the courier's cell phone in a crowded Pakistani city. But there is little doubt that the torture scenes in the movie will be the ones that linger with filmgoers.
"Zero Dark Thirty" will be released at a time when Americans are becoming more likely to embrace the idea that torturing prisoners suspected of terrorism is justified. In September, a YouGov poll indicated that 41% of Americans endorse this view. That is up 14% from a similar poll taken in 2007.
While "Zero Dark Thirty" was in production, some Republican politicians were harshly critical of the manner in which the Obama administration was granting access to its director and screenwriter. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, warned that the filmmakers had engaged in an "extremely close, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous collaboration with top officials at the CIA, DoD (the Pentagon), and the White House."
In fact, the film, which will be released on December 19, barely mentions Obama, even though he did, after all, make the politically perilous decision to send the Navy SEALs deep into Pakistan to hunt down bin Laden.
The one time the president does appear in "Zero Dark Thirty" is in a clip from a "60 Minutes" interview in which he criticizes the use of "torture." By this point in the film, the audience has already seen that the CIA has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al Qaeda detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama's opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy.
Ironically, one of the most vocal supporters of the CIA's use of coercive interrogation techniques is the same Republican politician who was the most critical of the way that the Obama administration granted access to the filmmakers of "Zero Dark Thirty." King told Fox News shortly after bin Laden was killed, "for those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information which directly led us to bin Laden."
That is certainly not the considered view of the chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, who have spent the past three years investigating the CIA interrogation program. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Carl Levin, D-Michigan, released a statement in April that is completely at odds with the claims of King:
"CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL (bin Laden) courier from detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. ... Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program. ... The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques."
Let's hope that the Senate Intelligence Committee report is largely declassified and made public. The American public has a right to know whether the coercive techniques that were used in its name actually worked or not.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a great piece of filmmaking and does a valuable public service by raising difficult questions most Hollywood movies shy away from, but as of this writing, it seems that one of its central themes -- that torture was instrumental to tracking down bin Laden -- is not supported by the facts.