What Panetta Said About Waterboarding

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 4 2011 12:29 PM

What Panetta Said About Waterboarding

I touch on this in my piece today, but there's enough confusion out there that it's worth printing exactly what Brian Williams asked Leon Panetta about enhanced interrogation techniques last night.

WILLIAMS: I'd like to ask you about the sourcing on the intel that ultimately led to this successful attack. Can you confirm that it was -- as a result of water boarding that we learned what we needed to learn to go after Bin Laden?

PANETTA: It-- you know, Brian, in the intelligence business you work from a lot of sources of information and that was true here. We had a multiple source-- a multiple series of-- sources that provided information with regards to the situation. Clearly some of it came from detainees and the interrogation of detainees but we also had information from other sources as well. From Sigent intelligence, from imagery, from other sources that we had-- assets on the ground. And it was a combination of all of that that ultimately we were able to put together that led us to that compound. So-- it's-- it's a little difficult to say it was due just to one source of information that we got.

WILLIAMS: Turned around the other way, are you denying that waterboarding was, in part, among the tactics used to extract the intelligence that led to this successful mission?

PANETTA: No, 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-- whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always gonna be an open question.

WILLIAMS: So finer point, one final time, enhanced interrogation techniques -- which has always been kind of a handy euphemism in these post-9/11 years -- that --

PANETTA: Right.

WILLIAMS: -- includes water boarding?    

PANETTA: That's correct.

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This is a smart line of questioning, but what does it confirm? We know that Gitmo detainees and KSM were among the sources who, at some points, produced information useful to the bin Laden hunt. But what we don't know -- what has actually been denied -- is that the information that led directly to OBL was obtained from enhanced interrogation techniques. We actually know it was chased down by other means. This is why Panetta says "whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always gonna be an open question." This wasn't the "ticking time bomb" scenario that has been used to justify waterboarding or torture. That fact shouldn't get lost.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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