After Sept. 11, Alec Station’s objectives changed. Instead of generating intelligence about al Qaeda’s strategy and plans, its analysts became trackers, following the digital trails left by the phone calls, emails and credit cards of bin Laden and his lieutenants in an effort to pin down their whereabouts so they could be killed or captured. The latter often resulted in what the CIA delicately refers to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and much of the rest of the world calls “torture.” And it is on this point that Manhunt will kick off a firestorm of controversy.
Manhunt says explicitly what last year’s fictionalized account of the pursuit of bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, only hinted at: that torture was morally justified and, more importantly, it worked. Several CIA officers interviewed in Manhunt say Bin Laden’s senior commander, Abu Zubaydah, gave up nothing until he was waterboarded, then sang like a jihadist canary.
Zubaydah’s disclosures allowed U.S. forces to go on a killing spree against al Qaeda leaders, gunning them down in such profusion that one CIA official laughingly offers an imaginary promotion ceremony: “Congratulations, Abu Butthead, you’re now No. 3 in al Qaeda. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you’re now No. 3 in al Qaeda. You’d better buckle your chin strap because your career path is going to be pretty short-lived.”
“You can’t argue with success,” says one CIA analyst. “And the fact of the matter is that we were extremely successful once we started the techniques on Abu Zubaydah.”
Another notes that a key break in the case — the identity of bin Laden’s trusted personal courier, who eventually led the CIA to the secret Pakistan compound where the al Qaeda leader was killed in 2011 — came after a captured bin Laden aide was interrogated by Kurdish security forces. Asked what happened during questioning to make him give up the name, her only response is a tiny smile that curls into the grin of a Cheshire cat.