Torture hearings get partisan
Democrats used a Senate hearing Wednesday to push back against GOP allegations that they did not act to stop harsh interrogations authorized by the Bush administration.
One legal expert told a Senate subcommittee the interrogation policies were an “ethical trainwreck.” A former FBI agent testified that the use of harsh interrogation techniques – including waterboarding – did not produce sound intelligence and disputed statements by former President George W. Bush suggesting otherwise.
And Democrats were able to rebuff GOP accusations that they failed to raise a red flag on torture when they had a chance.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat who sits on the Judiciary subcommittee investigating torture allegations, said that in his four years sitting on the Intelligence Committee and getting briefed on CIA programs, he found himself in the “frustrating position” where he wanted to “walk right out of the Intelligence Committee room and call a press conference” but he couldn’t because the nature of the briefing was classified.
Durbin pressed Philip Zelikow, a former senior State Department official under President Bush and former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, to explain whether the briefings are meant to inform of actions after the fact or before the policy is executed.
Zelikow suggested such discussions typically happen “after the fact,” and that the briefings ensured the White House could pursue their favored policies regardless if members of Congress weren’t completely informed of the program.
“We were told, ‘why are you so upset at this because members of Congress in both parties were OK with it,’” said Zelikow, now a professor at the University of Virginia.
The debate foreshadowed the growing battle in Congress over whether to move forward on prosecuting Bush officials, with Democrats signaling that future hearings were being planned. Federal judge Jay Bybee — one of the authors behind the legal memos who is now under scrutiny —declined an invitation to testify before the panel, Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy acknowledged Wednesday.
The lone Republican who sat in on the hearing portrayed the testimony as politically motivated and warned that any future inquiries into should also focus on what members of Congress knew at the time that harsh interrogation tactics were being employed.
And he wasn’t afraid to highlight that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was briefed early on about the program.
“I don’t want to go retry Nancy Pelosi, that’s not my goal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), top Republican on the Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts. “But if you’re going to accuse these people in the Bush administration of being evil or of committing a crime, and she was told about it – I want to know what she was told.”
He said that future hearings should include Pelosi and other lawmakers as witnesses.
Graham made those comments to reporters, but he was equally as critical during the two- hour hearing, questioning whether it was a “political stunt.”
“Let’s not unnecessarily impede the ability of our country to defend ourselves against an enemy that as I speak is thinking and plotting their way back to the country,” Graham said.
But the star witness at the standing-room only hearing was Ali Soufan, who boosted Democrats’ claims that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics were “slow, ineffective, slow and harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda.” To protect his identity as a former FBI agent, photographers were requested to clear out of the room and he gave his testimony behind a screen.
Soufan, who worked as an undercover al Qaeda operative and helped investigate the 9/11 attacks, told senators that, “As shocking as these techniques are to us, the al Qaeda training prepares them for much worse — the torture they would expect to receive if caught by dictatorships.”
Soufan, who as an FBI agent interrogated Abu Zubaydah in 2002, disputed statements made by President Bush and his Justice Department that the al Qaeda operative disclosed critical information only after he was subjected to harsh interrogation tactics. In fact, Soufan said other interrogation methods, like “leveraging our knowledge of the detainee’s culture and mindset,” allowed him to gather a key piece of intelligence from Zubaydah about Jose Padilla, who was arrested in 2002 on suspicions of plotting a dirty bomb attack.
“My own personal opinion, based on my own recollection, he was told a half-truth,” Soufan said of Bush’s statements, under questioning from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), chairman of the subcommittee.
Soufan was later removed by FBI Director Robert Mueller after objected to what he called “borderline torture.”
But Graham later pressed Soufan to admit that he wasn’t aware whether tough interrogation techniques on other detainees produced actionable intelligence.
“Mr. Chairman, I think there are some [instances] that enhanced interrogation techniques yielded good information,” Graham said.
And Soufan disputed a 2005 Justice Department memo that credits tough interrogation tactics for prompting Zubaydah to reveal Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the 9/11 mastermind.