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Tip to bin Laden may have come from Guantánamo

A view from outside an empty Camp Echo cell with a separate room for interviews and interrogations on April 2, 2009 in this image approved for release by the military at the U.S. Navy base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A view from outside an empty Camp Echo cell with a separate room for interviews and interrogations on April 2, 2009 in this image approved for release by the military at the U.S. Navy base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. MIAMI HERALD

WASHINGTON — More than 8,000 miles from the walled compound where U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, some of the men who helped make it happen are probably sitting today in cells at Guantánamo.

While it's not publicly known which detainees gave CIA or Guantánamo interrogators the nom de guerre of one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden, a senior U.S. official confirmed that crucial piece of intelligence was gathered from "detainees in the post-9/11 period."

A second U.S. official with knowledge of the situation confirmed that some of the information used to track down the courier was given by Guantánamo detainees. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the details involved.

The news underscored the ongoing debate about the legacy and value of Guantánamo.

On one hand, advocates of such long-term intelligence-gathering facilities point to bin Laden's death as a reminder that seemingly unimportant kernels of information collected from detainees over the years can coalesce into significant finds.

The identity of the courier, for instance, was verified four years ago, and it took two years for the United States to figure out the areas of Pakistan where he and his brother operated.

"What it confirms, without any hesitation or reservation, is that the United States needed and needs to have a strategic interrogation platform," said Charles "Cully" Stimson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs from 2006-2007. "I believe that it's narrow-minded and rather uneducated to suggest that no intelligence comes from Guantánamo detainees ... that is demonstrably wrong."

On the other hand, critics say that many if not most of the 779 Guantánamo detainees — of which 172 remain — had little of value to offer about international terrorism.

"The vast majority of people detained at Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo detainees. "A few people with information does not justify rounding up everybody."

Despite the apparent victory for intelligence gathering at Guantánamo, current Defense Department officials were tight-lipped about any connections between detainee interrogations and the dramatic turn of events early Monday morning in Pakistan.

Air Force Lt. Col. Don Langley, deputy director for public affairs at the prison camps, declined to comment to e-mailed questions on Monday. At the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher also said she couldn't provide additional information.

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

According to the assessment, al Libi was in contact with a man identified as bin Laden's "designated courier, Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan," in July 2003. The assessment was one of more than 750 obtained by the WikiLeaks website and given to McClatchy and other media organizations.

About that same time, the assessment said, al Libi moved his family to Abbottabad, Pakistan, the same town where bin Laden was killed early Monday during a raid by a U.S. tactical team.

The senior U.S. official confirmed to reporters during a briefing that the courier in question was "a trusted assistant of Abu Faraj al Libi."

Al Libi moved his family out of Abbottabad in mid-2004, the year before the large compound that housed bin Laden was built at the end of a narrow dirt road.

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 after his capture until he was transferred with 13 other "high-value detainees" to Guantánamo in September 2006.

In addition to al Libi, the bin Laden courier was also identified by detainees as "a protege of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11th," who is also now at Guantánamo, according to the senior U.S. official. It was Mohammed's capture in 2003 that pushed al Libi into the position of al Qaeda's operational chief, according to al Libi's Guantánamo file.

Bradsher, at the Pentagon, confirmed that Guantánamo detainees had learned of bin Laden's death. Asked about their reaction, she said that "right now, everything continues to be normal."