Congress' Intelligence committee had their eyes on bin Laden compound

McClatchy NewspapersMay 2, 2011 

WASHINGTON — For some time, a few members of Congress have known that intelligence operatives were watching a mysterious compound a few dozen miles outside Islamabad, Pakistan.

The operatives had gleaned certain details from ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high-value terrorism suspects – information that in turn led them to couriers frequently visiting the compound, said U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Those led to more questions.

“It was really the frequency with which those couriers visited… It was the way they acted,” Burr said Monday in a conversation with reporters.

“When you look at a picture of terrorist activities around the world, you look for anomalies, and that was certainly an anomaly that was a suggestion there was reason to look forward,” he said.

A broader picture emerged Monday of the years’ worth of intelligence and groundwork that went into Sunday’s successful raid. And it raised questions both about the future of the United States’ relationship with Pakistan and about the effectiveness of the controversial interrogation techniques that many considered torture.

Burr would not say exactly what the Intelligence Committee knew ahead of time, though he told reporters that committee members receive confidential briefings on Pakistan about once a month.

There have been tensions between the United States and Pakistan about whether the Middle Eastern country is doing enough to root out terrorists even as it receives U.S. aid.

U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, sits on the House Intelligence Committee and has warned about the potential for terrorists finding safe harbor in Pakistan. Myrick, who is chairwoman of a panel on terrorism and human intelligence-gathering, declined an interview request Monday.

John Brennan, the presidential advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, said Monday that it’s “inconceivable” that bin Laden didn’t have some kind of support system, though not necessarily on an official basis.

This weekend, the United States pointedly did not notify Pakistan about the raid until after its helicopters were out of the country.

Added Burr, “I’m certain that yesterday didn’t do anything to help our relationship.”

But, he said, Pakistan should realize that eliminating Bin Laden will help the country get rid of other Al-Qaeda elements as well.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, has visited Pakistan twice and said the U.S. has “strong relationships” with the country.

On Friday, her subcommittee will hold a closed hearing about work the special operations forces are working on in the region.

Navy special operations forces conducted the operation. But the Joint Special Operations Command based at Fort Bragg, N.C., manages special operations for the military, and Hagan said Monday she expected to be briefed more fully about JSOC’s role in the mission.

President Barack Obama said Sunday that he had solid intelligence in August that led his intelligence advisors to brief him more regularly on the compound, and he made the decision this weekend to go forward with the attack.

But that work was years in the making.

“The information that we used to find the couriers, which is eventually information that led us to this compound, and the success of mission yesterday, was a direct result of enhanced interrogations,” Burr said.

Bin Laden’s death reignited the debate about whether the interrogation methods, considered by many to be torture, worked.

The most striking clue so far available about how bin Laden was hunted appears in the secret Guantanamo assessment file of Abu Faraj al Libi, a Libyan detainee who was named as al Qaida’s third most senior leader when he was captured in May of 2005.

The assessment was one of more than 750 obtained by the WikiLeaks website and given to McClatchy and other media organizations.

The name of bin Laden’s designated courier, al Khaliq Jan, appears to have come from al Libi during 2005 and 2006 interrogations. Al Libi was in CIA custody from shortly his capture until he was transferred with 13 other “high-value detainees” to Guantanamo in September 2006.

Burr wouldn’t say which interrogation techniques might have been used to get the information that eventually contributed to Sunday’s raid, but he said the United States might need to consider revisiting the efficacy of such techniques in the future.

“It may not pay off instantaneously, but it will give us the ability to fill in dots we haven’t been able to connect,” Burr said.

What, he wondered, would have happened if the United States had captured bin Laden instead of shooting him?

“Would he have been tried?” Burr asked. “More importantly, how would we have gone about interrogating Osama bin Laden knowing what he knew?”

Critics say that many if not most of the some 779 Guantanamo detainees -- of which 172 remain -- had little of value to offer about international terrorism.

“The vast majority of people detained at Guantanamo did not have information that would be useful to the United States,” said Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been involved in the cases of hundreds of Guantanamo detainees. “A few people with information does not justify rounding up everybody.”

(McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter contributed to this report.)

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