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The Globe and Mail

Waterboarding detainees yielded clues that helped find bin Laden: CIA

President Barack Obama (Llistens while his nominee for Secretary of Defence, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, speaks in the East Room of the White House April 28, 2011.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The decade-long, tortuous trail that ultimately led to the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces included vital clues extracted from waterboarded Guantanamo detainees, America's spymaster says.

So, did torture work?

Barack Obama outlawed waterboarding - simulated drowning - calling it "torture" and denouncing his predecessor, George W. Bush, for authorizing what was called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

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But CIA director Leon Panetta, currently the toast of Washington because his agents painstakingly tracked down the al-Qaeda leader, has acknowledged that a waterboarding yielded valuable information. That intelligence gave Mr. Obama the chance to make good on his vow to hunt down Mr. bin Laden.

"We had multiple series of sources that provided information with regards to this situation … clearly some of it came from detainees [and]they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of those detainees," Mr. Panetta said. He confirmed - "that's correct" - when asked specifically whether waterboarding was one of the techniques.

Long before he became President, Mr. Obama denounced torture as a "betrayal of American values." And he vowed to end waterboarding, just as he promised to close Guantanamo - the Caribbean gulag for terrorist suspects - as soon as he became President.

"Waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it's torture," Mr. Obama said.

All of which has created a bit of a brouhaha for the White House as it initially denied that torture-extracted intelligence led to the courier that led to the location that led to Mr. bin Laden.

Meanwhile, Mr. Panetta, who has restored lustre to the tarnished CIA - its Bush-era boss George Tenet is best remembered for his "it's a slam dunk" boast that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction - has been tapped by Mr. Obama to be his next Defence Secretary. That may be the most important cabinet role given the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the necessity to slash at the bloated - but politically sacrosanct - Pentagon budget.

Mr. Panetta is suddenly in the spotlight - a relatively rare occurrence for the CIA spymaster - and his candid comments have caused more than a little discomfort at the White House.

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He all but promised that gruesome photos of the dead al-Qaeda leader would be released to silence those claiming the killing was a hoax. But Mr. Obama bluntly over-ruled him, creating a minor furor.

It was, however, Mr. Panetta's acknowledgment that waterboarding may have coughed up a crucial lead that was causing even consternation for the White House.

Some Republicans - who backed Mr. Bush's decision to stretch the definition of what was permitted under secret presidential interrogation order - demanded an immediate end to the criminal probe ordered by Mr. Obama into the methods of CIA interrogators during the Bush years.

"You can't have it both ways," said Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. "You can't have the Attorney-General prosecuting CIA interrogators … who may have gotten information" that led to discovering the location of the al-Qaeda leader.

The White House tried to down play the significance of any waterboarding-derived information while stopping short of saying Mr. Panetta was wrong.

"We have multiple ways of gathering information from detainees," Mr. Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said. "I can't categorically rule out that one piece of information - because we don't know."

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Still, gleaning the nom de guerre of one of the couriers - apparently back in 2003 - was only one tiny element of a vast, painstaking jigsaw of information that included communications intercepts and surveillance.

"We obtained that information through waterboarding," insisted Mike King, a New York Republican congressman, challenging "those who say that waterboarding doesn't work … that it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information which directly led us to bin Laden."

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