Like so many memes that persist in politics, this one started on the Internet. The morning after President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan, conservatives started crowing that credit should be given to President George W. Bush — specifically, for having the foresight and courage to torture the people who provided the initial scraps of intel that ultimately led the CIA to a giant compound just north of Islamabad.
The most prominent of these conservatives was Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who took to Twitter to ask sardonically, “Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?
About two hours later, the Associated Press published a brief story claiming that the CIA obtained the initial intelligence it needed to find bin Laden from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the so-called mastermind of 9/11 — and his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi at CIA black sites in Poland and Romania.
Those secret prisons, which the Obama administration contends to have abandoned, were the facilities where Mohammed and al-Libi were waterboarded. There, the detainees supposedly identified by nom de guerre a courier who would years later be located by American intelligence officials, and lead them to bin Laden’s compound.
“The news is sure to reignite debate over whether the now-closed interrogation and detention program was successful,” the AP wrote. “Former president George W. Bush authorized the CIA to use the harshest interrogation tactics in U.S. history. President Barack Obama closed the prison system.”
There’s just one problem. The key bit of intel wasn’t acquired via torture, according to a more fleshed out version of the same report.
But the myth provided a brief opening. Thus have Republicans constructed a version of events by which they — and Bush in particular — deserve some of credit for bin Laden’s death. Not all of it. Indeed they have by and large acknowledged Obama’s role, and congratulated him on it. And most have not been as brazen as King or the Tea Party Express in attributing the success of the mission to Bush’s interrogation policies. But Bush, they argue, played a big part as well, akin to the husband who loosens the lid to a Mason jar only to watch his wife open it effortlessly.
“I think the tools that President Bush put into place — GITMO, rendition, enhanced interrogation, the vast effort to collect and collate this information — obviously served his successor quite well,” former Bush adviser Karl Rove said on Fox News.
Also on Fox News, Bush’s one-time Chief of Staff Andrew Card claimed his former boss “made sure that everything was in place so that President Obama could have an opportunity to — to get Osama bin Laden, and it finally happened.”
Before the initial AP report hit the wires, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld handed the lion’s share of the credit to Bush — “All of this was made possible by the relentless, sustained pressure on al Qaeda that the Bush administration initiated after 9/11 and that the Obama administration has wisely chosen to continue,” he said — after having speculated that the crucial intelligence “very well could have been partly a result of the interviews that took place at Guantánamo.”
Soon thereafter, a longer version of the AP story appeared to back up their theory. Most of the key details remain unsourced, but retired CIA officer Marty Martin, who once led the hunt for bin Laden, claimed, “[w]e got beat up for it, but those efforts led to this great day.”
Thus, Republicans argued, credit extends to two Presidents: one who didn’t find bin Laden, and one who did.
And indeed, the timeline was very compatible with a briefing Obama administration officials gave to reporters on a conference call just after midnight on Monday.
“Detainees in the post-9/11 period flagged for us individuals who may have been providing direct support to bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, after their escape from Afghanistan,” one senior official said.
One courier in particular had our constant attention. Detainees gave us his nom de guerre or his nickname and identified him as both a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11th, and a trusted assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former number three of al Qaeda who was captured in 2005.
Detainees also identified this man as one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden. They indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden. But for years, we were unable to identify his true name or his location.
Four years ago, we uncovered his identity….
But then the AP updated the story yet again, adding this crucial detail.
Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them 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.
Thus, a big chunk of the rationale for giving the Bush credit for bin Laden’s death falls apart. It took officials until Obama’s presidency to locate this courier, and well into Obama’s second year in office before they found the compound. Only then was the raid itself designed and, on Sunday, implemented.
The conflicting reports may be less the result of the fog of war and more a sign that the death of bin Laden is prompting a relitigation of all the legal, moral and political issues kicked up by the Bush administration’s war on terror — each side asserting its narrative as the favored one.
Torture opponents on Capitol Hill were dubious of the initial claims, and stood by their contentions that torture is wrong and ineffective.
Asked by a reporter at a Capitol press briefing Monday morning, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), one of the most outspoken critics of Bush administration interrogation techniques, threw cold water on the theory.
“I don’t have any basis to believe that the leads here were produced by illegal activity. I have no basis to know that. My views about the fact that torture produces misinformation, not good information, are pretty well known,” he said.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.