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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Lindsey Graham’s ‘Enemy Combatant’ Exaggeration

Sen. Lindsey Graham exaggerated when he claimed “all the information” that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden came from “enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay.” Detainees provided “key information” about bin Laden’s “courier network,” but “other sources” provided “other intelligence” that ultimately led to his capture and death, intelligence officials have said.

Graham appeared April 22 on Greta Van Susteren’s “On the Record” on Fox News to discuss the Obama administration’s announcement earlier that day that it would not treat the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing as an “enemy combatant.” The South Carolina Republican agreed with the administration that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, should be tried in a federal civilian court. However, Graham said Tsarnaev should be designated an “enemy combatant” — which would allow the U.S. to interrogate Tsarnaev without a lawyer present to collect intelligence on what, if anything, he knows about other terrorist plots.

Graham, April 22: All the information that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden came from enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay, interrogated over a long period of time.

Graham’s use of the word “all” got our attention.

It’s true that over a number of years “key information was gleaned from detainees” about bin Laden’s “courier network” and one courier in particular, according to a senior intelligence officer at a May 2, 2011, Defense Department briefing after bin Laden was killed. “But it was by no means the only bit of information,” the official said. “We had other sources — I can’t describe those — that helped with the final intelligence picture.”

That is consistent with the accounts given at the time by then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and an unnamed senior administration official who spoke at a May 2, 2011, White House briefing on the killing of bin Laden. (It is customary that senior administration officials who speak at official press briefings on major news events remain anonymous.)

Panetta and the unnamed senior administration official said detainees provided the nickname of the courier who ultimately helped lead the U.S. to bin Laden, but not his true identity or the location of bin Laden’s secret compound in Abbottabad.

Senior administration official, May 2, 2011: 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, and for operational reasons, I can’t go into details about his name or how we identified him, but about two years ago, after months of persistent effort, we identified areas in Pakistan where the courier and his brother operated. Still we were unable to pinpoint exactly where they lived, due to extensive operational security on their part. The fact that they were being so careful reinforced our belief that we were on the right track.

Then in August 2010, we found their residence, a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a town about 35 miles north of Islamabad.

In a May 2011 letter, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta told Sens. John McCain and Dianne Feinstein that “no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.” Feinstein disclosed the contents of Panetta’s letter in a Dec. 19, 2012, letter that she, McCain and Sen. Carl Levin wrote to then-CIA Acting Director Michael Morrell.

In announcing bin Laden’s death, Panetta said the raid on Abbottabad was the “culmination of intense and tireless effort on the part of many dedicated Agency officers over many years.” He said, “Along with our partners at NGA, NSA, and ODNI, we applied the full range of our capabilities, collecting intelligence through both human and technical means and subjecting it to the most rigorous analysis by our government’s leading experts on Bin Ladin and his organization.”

The interrogation of detainees was clearly a central part of the intelligence gathering process, but that was not the source of “all the information,” as Graham claimed.

— Eugene Kiely