WASHINGTON — Months before the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly prepared a public-relations plan that would stress that information gathered from its disputed interrogation program had played a critical role in the hunt. Starting the day after the raid, agency officials in classified briefings made that point to Congress.
But in page after page of previously classified evidence, the Senate Intelligence Committee report on C.I.A. torture, released Tuesday, rejects the notion that torturing detainees contributed to finding Bin Laden — a conclusion that was also strongly implied in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the popular 2012 movie about the hunt for the Qaeda leader.
“The vast majority of the intelligence” about the Qaeda courier who led the agency to Bin Laden “was originally acquired from sources unrelated to the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program, and the most accurate information acquired from a C.I.A. detainee was provided prior to the C.I.A. subjecting the detainee to the C.I.A.’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Senate report said.
It added that most of “the documents, statements and testimony” from the C.I.A. regarding a connection between the torture of detainees and the Bin Laden hunt were “inaccurate and incongruent with C.I.A. records.”
On Tuesday, the C.I.A. disputed the committee’s portrayal that it had been misleading and disingenuous about the role of that program in the hunt for Bin Laden.
The crucial breakthrough in the hunt was the identification of the courier, known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was the terrorist leader’s link to the outside world from his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. His significance gradually came into sharper focus.
But the Senate report shows that the C.I.A. was already actively collecting information about him earlier than was previously known and long before it had obtained any intelligence about him from detainees in its custody.
The United States had started wiretapping a phone number associated with Mr. Kuwaiti by late 2001, and as early as 2002, the C.I.A. had obtained from other sources — including reports from allies based on detainees in their custody — the courier’s alias and the fact that he was one of Bin Laden’s few close associates and “traveled frequently” to meet with him. It also had data on his age, physical appearance and family connections, as well as a recording of his voice — all of which proved crucial to finding him.
It was in 2004 that the C.I.A. came to realize that it should focus on finding Mr. Kuwaiti as part of the hunt for Bin Laden, after it interrogated a Qaeda operative, Hassan Ghul, who had been captured in Iraqi Kurdistan. The report concludes that Mr. Ghul provided “the most accurate” intelligence that the agency produced about Mr. Kuwaiti’s role and ties to Bin Laden.
But the report emphasizes that Mr. Ghul provided all the important information about the courier before he was subjected to any torture techniques and spoke freely to his interrogators. During that two-day period in January 2004, it said, the C.I.A. produced 21 intelligence reports from Mr. Ghul, who one officer said “sang like a tweetie bird.”
“He opened up right away and was cooperative from the outset,” the officer added.
In those initial interrogations, Mr. Ghul portrayed Mr. Kuwaiti as Bin Laden’s “closest assistant” and said he was always with him, identifying him as a likely courier who ran messages between Bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda. He listed him as one of three people most likely to be with Bin Laden, who he speculated was living in a house in Pakistan, with Mr. Kuwaiti handling his needs.
Nevertheless, the C.I.A. then decided to torture Mr. Ghul to see if he would say more. He was transferred to a “black site” prison, where he was shaved, placed in a “hanging” stress position, and subjected to 59 hours of sleep deprivation, after which he began hallucinating; his back and abdomen began spasming; his arms, legs and feet began experiencing “mild paralysis”; and he began having “premature” heart beats. During and after that treatment, he provided “no actionable threat information” that resulted in the capture of any leaders of Al Qaeda, the report said.
In its statement pushing back on the report, the C.I.A. insisted another detainee, Ammar Al Baluchi, had been “the first to reveal” Mr. Kuwaiti was a courier, after Mr. Baluchi’s arrest and subjection to enhanced interrogation techniques in May 2003.
But the Senate report shows that Mr. Baluchi’s claim was not recognized as a breakthrough, in part because he recanted what he had said under torture. The report also notes that to make its claim about the significance of Mr. Baluchi’s information, the agency “ignores” detailed information in its records from 2002, from several detainees in the custody of other governments, “suggesting al-Kuwaiti may have served as a courier” for Bin Laden.
The C.I.A.’s statement also said that Mr. Ghul had provided “more concrete and less speculative” information that Mr. Kuwaiti was a courier after Mr. Ghul was subjected to its “enhanced” interrogation techniques. The Senate report called the agency’s rebuttal “incorrect,” citing contemporaneous C.I.A. reports.
The C.I.A.’s records also show that detainees subjected to the torture techniques “provided fabricated, inconsistent and generally unreliable information” about the courier throughout their detention, the report said.
The C.I.A. countered that statements by two other detainees playing down the importance of Mr. Kuwaiti were significant corroboration that he was a secret worth protecting. The Senate report showed that the agency pressed both detainees about the courier in the summer of 2005 and thought both were lying.
But the Senate report suggested that the agency had already sharpened its focus on Mr. Kuwaiti by the time of those denials. On Sept. 1, 2005, an internal agency bulletin on the hunt for Bin Laden reported that the search for his couriers was going nowhere because detainees were being unhelpful, adding, “We nonetheless continue the hunt for Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.”
Five and a half years later, in March 2011, the C.I.A.’s public affairs office prepared material for release after the operation, including developing “agreed upon language” that would emphasize “the critical nature of detainee reporting in identifying Bin Laden’s courier.”