WASHINGTON — Intelligence garnered from waterboarded detainees was used to track down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and kill him, CIA Chief Leon Panetta told NBC News on Tuesday.
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"Enhanced interrogation techniques" were used to extract information that led to the mission's success, Panetta said during an interview with anchor Brian Williams. Those techniques included waterboarding, he acknowledged.
Panetta, who in a 2009 CIA confirmation hearing declared "waterboarding is torture and it's wrong," said Tuesday that debate about its use will continue.
"Whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always gonna be an open question," Panetta said.
"In the intelligence business you work from a lot of sources of information and that was true here," Panetta said. "We had a multiple source — a multiple series of sources — that provided information with regards to the situation. Clearly some of it came from detainees and the interrogation of detainees but we also had information from other sources as well."
Panetta's comments hours after Attorney General Eric Holder defended as lawful Tuesday the intelligence gathering and raid that resulted in the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The raid was "lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way. The people who were responsible for that action, both in the decision making and the effecting of that decision, handled themselves I think quite well,'' Holder told the House Judiciary Committee.
Bin Laden was killed at a heavily fortified home in an affluent suburb north of Islamabad, Pakistan.Story: Bin Laden's death rekindles 'enhanced' interrogation debate
Holder's comments to the Judiciary Committee marked the first appearance before Congress by an Obama administration Cabinet official since the mission targeting bin Laden was carried out successfully early Monday.
Under questioning by a committee member, Holder said he did not know whether information helpful to the search for bin Laden was gained through harsh interrogation techniques of al-Qaida suspects.
Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., asked whether the bin Laden mission might have been illegal if it was aided by legally questionable interrogation tactics of prisoners at CIA sites around the globe.
The following is an exchange between Holder and Lungren during the hearing.
Lungren: "Can you tell us for the public record whether we can therefore be assured that any intelligence which led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden was not the result of enhanced interrogation techniques?"
Holder: "Well I think that, as has been indicated by other administration spokesmen, there was a mosaic of sources that led to the identification of the people that led to ..."
Lungren: "I understand that, but were any pieces of that mosaic the result of enhanced interrogation techniques?"
Holder: "I do not know."
Lungren: "If that were the case, would it make the action that we took against Osama bin Laden illegal?"
Holder: "No. I mean, I think that in terms of the attenuation, to the extent that it was assumed that that were true, the attenuation between those acts that might have been problematic and the action that was taken just two days ago was sufficiently long so that the action would still be considered legal."
U.S. officials say one of the key clues that led to bin Laden was a thread of information about an al-Qaida courier. That thread, they say, may have come from Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed or from the so-called 20th hijacker, Mohammad al-Qahtani.
Authorities acknowledge both Khalid Sheik Mohammad and Mohammad al-Qahtani had been subjected to enhanced interrogation, a policy authorized by former President George W. Bush.
"We used this technique on three people, captured a lot of people and used it on three. We gained value; information to protect the country. And it was the right thing to do as far as I'm concerned," Bush said in a 2010 interview.
But was it harsh interrogation that led to the critical information? The identity and whereabouts of the courier came to light only years later, after the enhanced interrogation had stopped.
"The road to bin Laden began with waterboarding," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., House Homeland Security Chairman, said in an NBC News interview in which he asserted that waterboarding is a "moral imperative" that "saves lives."
"I use the example of Sept 10th, 2001, if we had captured [9/11 airplane hijacker] Mohammed Atta and we knew he was going to kill thousands of Americans but we didn't know when or where, are we saying now you wouldn't hold his head under water to save 3000 lives?"
Critics say there's no way to know if enhanced interrogation methods led to that one crucial piece of intelligence.
"To reduce this to the idea that one piece of fact here or there came from enhanced interrogation techniques and their use is really misleading the American public," said Karen Greenberg, NYU Center On Law And Security.
Administration officials say it was multiple sources of intelligence and years of patient work that eventually led to bin Laden.
"Those who believe enhanced interrogation techniques are incredibly successful are going to be out there publicly advocating for why they work and why we should continue to use them. Others are going to say, well, they may have worked on this one occasion, you can't draw a broad sweeping conclusion that they always work," said Roger Cressey, NBC News terrorism analyst.
Msnbc.com's Carrie Dann, NBC affiliate WTHR in Indianapolis and Reuters contributed to this report.
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