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Senators Examine Use of Torture on Detainees

May 13, 2009 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Kwame Holman reports on a Senate hearing examining harsh interrogation methods used on some detainees.

KWAME HOLMAN: A Senate Judiciary Subcommittee today embarked on a series of hearings into allegations of torture authorized by the Bush administration against alleged terrorists.

It was Congress’s first formal response to the Obama administration’s release of Bush administration memos that gave legal sanction to so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is chairman.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE, D-R.I.: Winston Churchill said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The truth of our country’s descent into torture is not precious. It is noxious; it is sordid.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was the only Republican to participate in the hearing. He opposed the harsh tactics, but said Bush administration officials had done nothing illegal.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: They saw the law many times as a nicety that we couldn’t afford, so they took a very aggressive interpretation of what the law would allow, and that came back to bite us. It always does, but that’s not a crime.

Witnesses split on tactics

KWAME HOLMAN: A panel of witnesses, too, was split on whether waterboarding and other tactics violated U.S. laws.

Philip Zelikow was a top aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2005 to 2007.

PHILIP ZELIKOW, former State department official: This was a large, collective failure in which a lot of Americans, a lot of Americans from both parties, thought they needed a program like this in order to protect the country.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Zelikow was among those who objected to the reasoning of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which authorized harsh treatment of al-Qaida suspects by CIA interrogators.

The memos authorized techniques, including sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and waterboarding, the controlled drowning of a subject. Zelikow said the legal reasoning behind the opinions was "strained and indefensible."

PHILIP ZELIKOW: The U.S. government over the past seven years adopted an unprecedented program in American history of coolly calculated, dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one.

Calls for independent reviews

KWAME HOLMAN: Zelikow's own memo opposing the methods was ordered to be destroyed by the Bush White House, but copies now are being reviewed for possible declassification and release.

Zelikow and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have called for an independent review of the interrogation matter, but President Obama has resisted that approach.

In the hearing, law professor Jeffrey Addicott argued there was nothing to investigate.

JEFFREY ADDICOTT, St. Mary's University School of Law: The word "torture" rolls off the tongue with great ease, but you have to recognize that not every alleged incident of interrogation or mistreatment necessarily satisfies the legal definition of torture.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: I will take a moment now to recess very briefly so that the necessary security measures for Mr. Soufan can be put into place.

KWAME HOLMAN: The testimony of former FBI undercover agent Ali Soufan was heard, but not seen, at his request. The former counterterrorism operative said harsh techniques are totally ineffective, that they force compliance rather than cooperation.

ALI SOUFAN, former FBI agent: A major problem is that it is ineffective. Al-Qaida are trained to resist torture. As shocking as these techniques are to us, their training prepares them for much worse, the torture that they would receive if caught by dictatorships, for example. In a democracy, however, there is a glass ceiling the interrogator cannot breach, and eventually the detainee will call the interrogator's bluff.

Questions over efficacy

KWAME HOLMAN: Soufan was the first person to interrogate Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaida logistics agent, following his capture in 2002. He said his nonviolent methods elicited key information before the CIA became involved and began coercive interrogation.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Harsh techniques were introduced which did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking, correct?

ALI SOUFAN: Correct, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Graham pressed Soufan on a point raised recently by former Vice President Dick Cheney, the techniques provided valuable intelligence.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The vice president is suggesting that there was good information obtained, and I'd like the committee to get that information. Let's have both sides of the story here. I mean, one of the reasons these techniques have survived for about 500 years is apparently they work.

ALI SOUFAN: Because, sir, there's a lot of people who don't know how to interrogate, and it's easy to hit somebody than outsmart them.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Graham echoed a theme voiced by other Republicans that high-ranking congressional Democrats also had been briefed on the techniques.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I don't know what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it, and I really don't think she's a criminal if she was told about waterboarding and did nothing. But I think it is important to understand that members of Congress allegedly were briefed about these interrogation techniques.

KWAME HOLMAN: In recent public statements, Speaker Pelosi has said she was not told harsh techniques had been used.