By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
The Senate's first hearing exploring the alleged torture of detainees rapidly descended into partisan counterattacks yesterday, as Democrats sought to portray the Bush
administration's decision-making about the interrogation techniques as riddled with misstatements and defective legal conclusions.
Former State Department counselor Philip D. Zelikow and retired FBI agent Ali Soufan told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about their unsuccessful attempts to block or reverse detainee interrogation techniques that included waterboarding and repeatedly slamming detainees into flexible walls.
Soufan left a secret overseas prison in 2002 after registering concerns to his superiors at the bureau about CIA contractors engaged in what he called "amateurish, Hollywood-style interrogation methods." Zelikow and his colleagues had forcefully argued that the Bush White House should halt the practices. He said he wrote a memo challenging the legality of the interrogation techniques. The most controversial of those techniques -- waterboarding -- had ended in 2003. He said administration officials tried to destroy the memo, which is still classified, in early 2006.
That experience, Zelikow said, "told me that the lawyers involved in that opinion did not welcome peer review and indeed would shut down challenges even inside the government. If I was right, their whole interpretation . . . was unsound."
The hearing came only weeks after the Justice Department released four memos written by Bush administration lawyers in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel saying that the techniques were legal. Since then, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have demanded the release of other documents, including reports from the CIA inspector general and the Justice Department's ethics watchdogs.
The release of the memos has also prompted calls for criminal prosecutions, disbarment or a congressionally chartered probe of former government officials and contractors for their activities during the Bush administration's anti-terrorism efforts.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who convened the Judiciary hearing, cited a "near-avalanche of falsehood" surrounding the Bush interrogations program, which he said for years had employed "false devices thrown out there to confuse and distract."
Also on the table was the effectiveness of the harsh interrogation tactics. Soufan, who investigated the East Africa embassy bombings, said the "enhanced interrogation techniques" were ineffective and unreliable and, "as a result, harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda."
Soufan contradicted the Bush administration accounts of receiving valuable information through the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who suggested the hearing could be a "political stunt," pointedly questioned Soufan about his knowledge of the CIA program.
And shortly after the hearing, a U.S. intelligence official echoed Graham's complaint.
"It's puzzling that someone who questioned a single high-value detainee for just a few months claims to be able to talk about the value of a program that lasted nearly seven years after he was a part of it," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "There are varying accounts of the facts and circumstances surrounding the interrogation of Abu Zubaida," he said, referring to the terrorism suspect whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein.
Zelikow advocated for a broad independent inquiry of possible abuses of law and process.
"The U.S. government adopted an unprecedented program of coolly calculated dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information," Zelikow said. "This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one. It was a collective failure. . . . Precisely because this was a collective failure, it is all the more important to comprehend it and learn from it."
Georgetown University law professor David J. Luban told the Senate yesterday that the Justice Department memos blessing the techniques were "an ethical train wreck." But other legal discipline experts have questioned whether the Bush lawyers acted in bad faith and whether state bar associations could amply investigate such a case.
In response, Whitehouse asked whether the actions of CIA contractors who used the techniques may not have been covered by the Justice Department memos. He also faulted the Bush attorneys for failing to mention in their analysis a 1983 case in which a sheriff was prosecuted for waterboarding detainees.
But Graham lashed back: "Because they didn't cite a case that you think is dispositive, that they're a bunch of crooks?"
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.