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Senate Panel Examines Origins of Interrogation Tactics

June 17, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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A Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday examined the evolution of interrogation tactics developed for terrorist suspects and how they apply to U.S. law.

GWEN IFILL: A Senate panel today tried to get to the bottom of how it became acceptable to use aggressive interrogation techniques on detainees. Jeffrey Brown has that report.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Senate Armed Services Committee today offered its first public look into its investigation of the origins and authorization of harsh interrogation methods used at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons.

The committee found that officials in the office of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began looking at methods such as waterboarding and sensory deprivation in July 2002, contradicting past statements from Pentagon officials that the request for tougher interrogation practices came from Guantanamo Bay commanders in October of that year.

Rumsfeld went on to approve several of the techniques in the December 2002 memo.

Committee Chair Carl Levin.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: So how did it come about that American military personnel stripped detainees naked, put them in stress positions, used dogs to scare them, put leashes around their necks to humiliate them, hooded them, deprived them of sleep, and blasted music at them?

Were these actions the result of a, quote, “few bad apples” acting on their own? It would be a lot easier to accept if it were, but that’s not the case.

The truth is that senior officials in the U.S. government sought information on aggressive techniques, twisted the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.

JEFFREY BROWN: Such criticism was not limited to the committee’s Democrats. Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: Now, the guidance that was provided during this period of time, I think, will go down in history as some of the most irresponsible and short-sighted legal analysis ever provided to our nation’s military intelligence communities.

JEFFREY BROWN: But not all Republicans felt the same way. Alabama’s Jeff Sessions argued those who sought approval of the interrogation methods did so with the safety of the country in mind.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Our military felt that this country was threatened after 9/11. They were able to apprehend some of the key players in that, and they desperately wanted intelligence to make sure that, if there was another cell group out there planning a similar attack, they could be stopped. And I believe they consulted the legal system all the way up to the Department of Justice.

And, hopefully, in the future, we can create a policy that we can all agree on, but I just don’t think we ought to disrespect our men and women in uniform who have done their best to serve their country at a time when this nation saw itself under real threat.

JEFFREY BROWN: According to committee members, the interrogation techniques examined by the Pentagon came from a U.S. military program that trained American personnel on how to survive when exposed to harsh tactics upon capture.

The U.S. military program is called Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, or SERE.

Among today’s panelists was Alberto Mora, a former lawyer for the Navy who said he had objected to the move by the Pentagon to use aggressive methods on detainees.

ALBERTO MORA, Former General Counsel, U.S. Navy: Mr. Chairman, our nation’s policy to use so-called harsh interrogation techniques during the war of terror was a mistake of massive proportions. It damaged and continues to damage our nation.

This policy, which may aptly be labeled a policy of cruelty, violated our founding values, our constitutional system and the fabric of our laws, our overarching foreign policy interests, and our national security.

JEFFREY BROWN: The hearing closed with testimony from William “Jim” Haynes, the Pentagon’s top civilian lawyer in 2002. He reportedly led the department’s inquiry into whether the SERE techniques could be used for interrogation of detainees.

This afternoon, Haynes was pressed about his decision to pursue the methods, despite strong objections from some military lawyers. He explained that sometimes there was a tension between law enforcement and intelligence approaches to dealing with the detainees.

WILLIAM HAYNES, Former General Counsel, Defense Department: Nobody has advocated torture, period. I don’t advocate torture. I don’t question your appreciation that effective interrogation is what we’re after. I agree with that.

I’m not an interrogator. I’m not an intelligence officer. I’m not an FBI person. I’m a lawyer.

And my job in this exercise that we’re probably going to get into at this point is to talk about, what does the law permit and what does the law prohibit? And it’s important to understand those two conflicting approaches from the experts, of which I am not, in trying to — in appreciating how I can respond to your question, did I know that there were people who had problems with the approaches? Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: A final report from the committee is expected by the end of the year.