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Former Bush Official On Using Force To Find Bin Laden

MICHEL MARTIN (Host): I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, we're going to dig into one of the more difficult debates that has emerged since Osama bin Laden was discovered and killed in Pakistan last week. That debate is whether the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques - that are unsettling for many Americans - were partly responsible. John Yoo is among the former Bush administration officials who say that Sunday's success, quote, vindicates the Bush administration, whose quote, intelligence architecture marked the path to bin Laden's door. That's what he wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that ran this week.

From 2001 to 2003, Mr. Yoo was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. He was an author of the memos justifying the use of enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding and warrantless wiretaps.

In just a minute, we'll hear from someone with an opposing view, Karen Greenberg of New York University's Center on Law and Security. But John Yoo is with us now. He is currently a professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Boalt School of Law. We actually reached him in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he is the speaker at a bar association event. Professor Yoo, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN YOO: Oh, Michel, it's a great pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, let's be sure we understand your argument, for those who have not yet had a chance to read your piece or hear your views. First of all, you are critical in your piece of President Obama. I think it's fair to say you're critical because you're saying - for killing Osama bin Laden, or having his forces kill Osama bin Laden rather than capturing him alive - because you say capturing him alive would have required the administration to hold and interrogate him at Guantanamo Bay. And you say that's something that's given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure. You think it would have been preferable to attempt to bring him in alive?

YOO: Michel, that's exactly right. I think that this administration has a strong preference not to capture any al-Qaida leaders and would rather kill them, either using drones or in the kind of operation we saw this week. However, I think it's much better for our national security if we could capture them - as we used to - and interrogate them in order to build our mosaic of intelligence on the al-Qaida network. In fact, it's precisely those earlier captures and interrogations, back in the first years after 9/11, that produced the intelligence that eventually allowed us to find the couriers that led us to bin Laden himself.

MARTIN: You say in your piece that President George W. Bush should receive credit for the success of the mission because he, and not President Obama, constructed the interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week's actionable intelligence. You know, of the two - the surveillance and the interrogation programs - do you have an opinion about which was the more important?

YOO: I think without either one, you couldn't have targeted bin Laden because the interrogations are the - one that gave us the name of the courier. And then it was the warrantless surveillance that actually allowed us to find where he was. And this is the way intelligence works. I mean, you can't - one guy isn't going to give you exactly where bin Laden is, at what time and what place. The intelligence agencies build this mosaic of information from many different sources. And without each piece, you can't say well, we still would have found him anyway. Each piece had to build the bigger picture.

And so I think President Obama couldn't have achieved the success - for which he should be credited - on Sunday without all of those methods, and without all that information, pulled together at once.

MARTIN: As you might imagine, your piece - and those of other people from the Bush administration - have, you know, provoked a - you know, furious reaction on the part of people who really disagree with the use of these techniques. There are two things that they cite, mainly, to challenge your perspective. One is that reportedly, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded more than 180 times, still misled interrogators when it came to identifying al-Qaida operatives.

And they point out to say that the intelligence that you get from this kind of treatment isn't intelligence at all. It's generally misleading; it's often false. What do you say to that?

YOO: First of all, the use of the enhanced interrogation methods was used to get the cooperation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al-Qaida leaders. It wasn't necessarily to get specific information at the time. Once he was cooperative, once his resistance to American questioning was broken, then you could use standard questioning methods. The second thing I would say - in the sense that I think this is mistaken - is that the very fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was trying to disguise or downplay the importance or the role of this courier is exactly one of the things that caused a red flag to go up.

People in the CIA, according to the reports that are now in the public, said that the CIA became very interested in these couriers because some of the al-Qaida leaders we were interrogating were trying so hard to disguise this person's information. That wasn't consistent with what we were getting from other interrogations.

MARTIN: But what about somebody like Fouad al-Rabiah, a person whose case was reported on recently when some of the documents around Guantanamo were made public. NPR's reported on this particular case, so I thought you might be familiar with it. Here's a detainee who was subject to coercive interrogations and gave false information. And his attorney says that the techniques, quote, over a period of several months broke him down to the point that he basically said whatever anybody wanted him to say. Just so that it would stop.

YOO: Well, you know, I don't know the facts of that particular case. I think that's probably something that occurred after I left the government. But I would say even if someone tries to give you false information - that's what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed tried to do - even that can be a value to the CIA because it has to be compared to the information we're getting from others.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with John Yoo. He served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, in the Justice Department, from 2001 to 2003. He was the author of a number of memos justifying the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and warrantless wiretaps. Arguments over these techniques, which many Americans consider torture, have resurfaced since the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The other point that critics of your perspective make is that these interrogation programs ended five years ago. And so some say, look at - that timeline alone would tell you that the information that was gleaned using these techniques could not possibly have been that actionable because why did it take five more years to track him down? What is your response to that?

YOO: Actually, the fact that this stopped five years ago is what worries me because now, for the last five years, our government has essentially gone dark on this stream of intelligence. In fact, if you look at what the heads of the CIA have said over the years, for the first four or five years after 9/11, interrogations yielded - by far - the majority of the most important information we have had on al-Qaida.

And so even things we may have found out three or four or five years ago, when you combine them with things we're getting now, finally bring everything into focus. It's like, you know, an out-of-focus television or something - or lens - and finally, something allows you to bring the whole picture into focu. And then you can take the action.

MARTIN: How would you know that it's information obtained using those particular techniques versus information obtained in other ways?

YOO: Well, one thing we can say, or look back to, is what happened in the case of the al-Qaida leaders we did capture. Without the enhanced interrogation methods, they were not going to say anything at all. If you remember, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured, he invoked his Miranda rights to remain silent and said he wanted to see a lawyer.

You know, I would be the first to agree with you - that these are difficult questions, that many people are unhappy about them. They make people uncomfortable. But these are the things that have been forced on us by the nature of the 9/11 attacks and the kind of enemy we're fighting - where we're fighting an enemy that disguises themselves as civilians, and wants to launch surprise attacks on us. If they fought like a traditional military - out in the open, in uniform, on behalf of a country - none of this would be necessary.

MARTIN: John Yoo is a professor of law at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He's a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice. He served there from 2001 to 2003. He is the author of a number of memos justifying the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and warrantless wiretaps. And we were able to reach him in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he is about to address the bar association there. Professor Yoo, thank you so much for joining us.

YOO: Michel, thanks a lot. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.