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Obama owes thanks, and an apology, to CIA interrogators

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In normal times, the officials who uncovered the intelligence that led us to Osama bin Laden would get a medal. In the Obama administration, they have been given subpoenas.

On his second day in office, Obama shut down the CIA’s high-value interrogation program. His Justice Department then reopened criminal investigations into the conduct of CIA interrogators — inquiries that had been closed years before by career prosecutors who concluded that there were no crimes to prosecute. In a speech at the National Archives, Obama eviscerated the men and women of the CIA, accusing them of “torture” and declaring that their work “did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts — they undermined them.”

Now, it turns out that the very CIA interrogators whose lives Obama turned upside down played a critical role in what the president rightly calls “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.”

It is time for a public apology.

U.S officials have acknowledged that the key piece of intelligence that led the CIA to bin Laden — information on the al-Qaeda leader’s principal courier — came from detainees in CIA custody. According to a senior administration official, “detainees in the post-9/11 period flagged for us individuals who may have been providing direct support to bin Laden and his deputy, [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, after their escape from Afghanistan. One courier in particular had our constant attention. Detainees gave us . . . his nickname and identified him as . . . a protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.” The nickname was Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. KSM was taken into CIA custody in 2003 and refused to talk. Only after undergoing enhanced interrogation techniques did he confirm knowing al-Kuwaiti.

The following year, another senior al-Qaeda operative named Hassan Ghul was captured. U.S. officials say he told the CIA that al-Kuwaiti was close to KSM’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi — a revelation officials described as the “linchpin.” In May 2005, al-Libi was finally taken into CIA custody. After being subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, he provided credible information on al-Qaeda’s courier networks, how they chose and employed couriers, and specific individuals. But he became evasive when asked about al-Kuwaiti. Some have suggested this shows his interrogation did not work. Quite the opposite, this was a red flag that led the agency to recognize al-Kuwaiti’s importance and focus its attention on identifying and hunting him down. It took years to actually find al-Kuwaiti and follow him to bin Laden’s compound. But without the information the CIA elicited from these high-value terrorists, the agency would not have known to look for him in the first place.

Already, critics are desperately trying to play down the CIA interrogation program’s role in the bin Laden operation. Many are pointing to an Associated Press report that KSM “did not discuss al-Kuwaiti while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He acknowledged knowing him many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.”

This statement demonstrates ignorance of how CIA interrogations worked. Interrogators would never have asked about the names of couriers during waterboarding. As I explain in my book, “Courting Disaster,” enhanced techniques were not used to gain intelligence; they were used to elicit cooperation. According to former CIA director Mike Hayden, as enhanced techniques were applied, CIA interrogators would ask detainees questions to which the interrogators already know the answers — allowing them to judge whether the detainees had reached a level of compliance. “They are designed to create a state of cooperation, not to get specific truthful answers to a specific question,” Hayden said.

Once interrogators determined a terrorist had become cooperative, the techniques stopped and traditional, non-coercive methods of questioning were used. Moreover, the use of enhanced techniques wasn’t needed for two-thirds of the detainees in CIA custody . Just the experience of being brought into CIA custody — the “capture shock,” arrival at a sterile location, the isolation, the fact that they did not know where they were and that no one else knew they were there — was enough to persuade most of them to cooperate.

Thanks to President Obama, this program, which helped lead us to bin Laden, is no longer part of America’s counterterrorism arsenal. Indeed, outside of the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been no reported U.S. detentions of high-value terrorists since Obama took office. Earlier this year, Umar Patek, the highest-ranking terrorist captured alive at this point in the Obama administration, was taken into custody by Pakistani authorities. Patek had traveled from Southeast Asia to Abbottabad — the same place where bin Laden was hiding. Coincidence? What was Patek doing in Abbottabad? With whom did he meet and what did they discuss? He should be in CIA custody answering such questions.

The time has come for Obama to restore the CIA interrogation program that made bin Laden’s demise possible — and to instruct Eric Holder to end his witch hunt against the heroes who helped lead us to bin Laden’s lair. That is the least Obama can do for the men and women responsible for the crowning achievement of his presidency. They don’t deserve a special prosecutor, Mr. President. They deserve the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute , writes a weekly online column for The Post.

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