Alberto Gonzales's smooth Senate appearance, featuring questions without answers, leaves me with questions of my own. Before the disclosure of the notorious August 2002 memorandum condoning torture that was featured at the Gonzales hearings, I traveled to the Guantanamo Bay prison last February as part of a homeland security congressional delegation. I wanted to relieve my skepticism about the treatment of "the worst of the worst," as President Bush had called the captives.
Members of Congress travel abroad to go behind the headlines and hearings and see and hear for ourselves. Yet it was from headlines and media reports of FBI agents, not from my own trip to Guantanamo Bay, that I learned that torture apparently was occurring even while other members of Congress and I were there. It may be too much to expect that my colleagues and I would have learned, much less been briefed, about torture during a visit. But I am certain that no one in our bipartisan delegation suspected that the benign interrogations we were shown were a dog-and-pony show designed to mislead us and worse.
From information revealed through a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, I now know that Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller did more than put the best face on Guantanamo Bay when our delegation saw interrogations at Camp Delta, one of several facilities for detainees. We were told that other facilities on the island held captives subject to more severe treatment than we witnessed but that the prisoners could progress through the three sections from the most to the least restrictive. We learned, of course, that there were captives who would not cooperate, but when we asked about torture, we were told it was never used.
Now I read eyewitness FBI reports of detainees "chained hand and foot in a fetal position, with no . . . food or water" for 18 or more hours who "defecated or urinated on themselves" and of a nearly unconscious detainee left in an unventilated room "probably well over 100 degrees."
We should all be relieved by Gonzales's testimony under oath that "torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration." Even so, after being duped once in my official capacity, I find it difficult to fully credit this assurance when, in the same testimony, Gonzales, who supervised the 2002 memorandum, also said he did not "have a disagreement with the conclusions then reached" in that memo concerning torture.
We were not merely briefed. Our committee was shown what seemed to be a system based on non-abusive deprivations and rewards. As detainees became more cooperative, their treatment was adjusted accordingly, with incrementally improved rewards and detention in better facilities. Unlike torture, this model was more likely to produce reliable intelligence. It seemed to make good sense.
The showcase of our visit was observation at close range of several captives exercising and playing ball in a fenced yard and, at even closer range, actual interrogations of two captives through a one-way window. We were amazed to see female National Guard members questioning apparently dangerous captives in comfortable, conversational style. Though their feet were shackled, the detainees' hands were free, to let them eat ice cream. The women were particularly successful with these detainees, we were told, and the information extracted was valuable. Here, before our eyes, was the evidence that the Guantanamo Bay model worked. It held together so well -- too well.
We did not expect to see interrogations at all, including the tough questioning permissible under the Geneva Conventions. Thus, it was not difficult to impress us with interrogations that defied the movie stereotypes.
Many of the troublesome memos and meetings occurred in the first year after Sept. 11, 2001. Understandably, bewildered officials felt pressured to prevent another attack. They were faced with the unprecedented challenge of obtaining useful intelligence from terrorists willing to die. Gonzales and his lawyers could have chosen the approach used in the most recent Justice Department memo, which repudiates the most shocking forms of torture and gives examples of unacceptable practices. Even this memo, which says nothing about the earlier position that the president could override laws affecting detainees, shows that U.S. policy on torture is still a work in progress.
The intellectual and moral challenges that officials still face are daunting. Gonzales and the Justice Department preferred to circumvent rather than face them. Mistakes were almost inevitable, but a show-interrogation that could only deceive a congressional delegation was inexcusable. Gonzales and his lawyers took the easy way out by redefining torture. High-level officials at Guantanamo Bay got the message that faking a snapshot of their prison was acceptable.
The writer, a Democrat, is the District of Columbia's representative in Congress.