A former senior FBI agent involved in the interrogation of captured al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah told a Senate panel Wednesday that the use of harsh techniques to extract information was "slow, ineffective and unreliable."
Ali Soufan, speaking from behind a screen to protect his identity, testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee at the first hearing to look into four Bush-era memos released last month by the White House that detail the authorization of so-called enhanced interrogation of terrorism suspects.
Soufan told lawmakers that he and fellow agents went "by the book" and gained actionable intelligence from Zubaydah by standard "informed interrogation" methods. Later, when the CIA's privately contracted interrogators took over the questioning, using techniques such as waterboarding, or controlled drowning, Zubaydah "shut down" and stopped giving good information, Soufan said.
The controversy over the use of what some describe as torture has been fueled in recent weeks by the release of the four memos and a high-profile media blitz launched by former Vice President Cheney to defend the Bush administration's actions. It also came on the same day an Obama administration official said the White House is backing away from an earlier promise to release previously unseen photos showing abuse of terrorism suspects, fearing they could endanger U.S. troops.
Soufan said his experience led him to the conclusion "that these [harsh] techniques should not be used," describing them as "slow, ineffective and unreliable and as a result, harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaida."
"Al-Qaida operatives are trained to resist torture," he testified. "That's why ... waterboarding itself had to be used 83 times [on Zubaydah]," he said, referring to information made known in a memo dated May 30, 2005. The memo also stated that Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times in a single month.
The panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, challenged Soufan's testimony, saying the ex-FBI agent was not privy to all the information obtained from Abu Zubaydah.
Soufan responded that some Bush administration claims of success using harsh methods against Zubaydah were "half-truths."
Graham also suggested Wednesday's proceedings were a "political stunt" and cited Cheney's remarks that "good information" had been obtained from the extreme methods. "I would like the committee to get that information. Let's get both sides of the story here," Graham said.
Of the five witnesses who testified before the panel Wednesday, only one, Jeffrey Addicott of St. Mary's University School of Law's Center for Terrorism Law, defended the methods approved by the Bush White House.
"In my legal opinion, the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques did not constitute torture," Addicott said.
Former State Department lawyer Philip Zelikow, who worked closely with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also spoke at the hearing. He reiterated his earlier charge that copies of a legal opinion he wrote in 2005 arguing against the methods were ordered "collected and destroyed" by the White House.
To those who defend such techniques, Zelikow told lawmakers: "If they are right, the laws must change and the country must be changed."
"I think they are wrong," he added.
Cheney said in an interview earlier this week on CBS' Face The Nation that President Obama's decision to discontinue enhanced interrogation "means in the future, we're not going to have the same safeguards we've had for the last eight years."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed Cheney's comments, saying Tuesday there has been "agreement across party lines that Guantanamo Bay has not made us a safer country."
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was a key figure in the internal debate in the Bush administration over the use of the techniques, declined to comment about the release of the memos or Cheney's comments.
"I stand by what I did in government service," he told NPR on Wednesday.
Gonzales stepped down as attorney general in September 2007 over his handling of FBI terrorism investigations and the alleged politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys.