Senate Panel Delves Into Harsh Interrogation Methods

A Congressional subcommittee on Wednesday had a hearing with two witnesses who warned the Bush administration against harsh interrogation techniques. One is Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who interrogated Abu Zubaydah. The other is Philip Zelikow, the State Department official who protested that there was no legal basis for justifying the techniques.

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The fight over torture policy is often reported as a split between the CIA and the FBI. As the story goes, CIA interrogators advocated harsh techniques while FBI interrogators opposed them. Now an interrogator who was at the center of the battle says that storyline is wrong, and he testified before a congressional subcommittee yesterday. NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.

ARI SHAPIRO: In one, brief statement, former FBI agent Ali Soufan upended widely held beliefs about the torture debate.

Mr. ALI SOUFAN (Former FBI agent): It has been reported that it was a conflict during the interrogation between the FBI and CIA. I totally disagree with this assertion.

SHAPIRO: The FBI and the CIA were on the same page, Soufan says. He knows because he helped interrogate Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value detainee picked up after 9/11.

Mr. SOUFAN: Using intelligent interrogation methods, within the first hour, we gained important, actionable intelligence.

SHAPIRO: He says the people who pushed for harsh interrogations were private contractors who'd been hired by the CIA.

Mr. SOUFAN: The contractors had to keep requesting authorization to use harsher and harsher methods.

SHAPIRO: Soufan said the contractors had no experience with interrogations or with terrorism. They reportedly came from a school that trained American service members how to resist torture. Committee chairman Sheldon Whitehouse said, this changes our understanding of the torture story.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island; Subcommittee Chairman): We were told we couldn't second-guess the brave CIA officers who did this. And now we hear that the program was led by private contractors with a profit motive and no real interrogation experience.

SHAPIRO: This was not a typical congressional hearing. Ali Soufan has gone undercover in al-Qaida before. He has testified against terrorists in court. And even though he's retired now, there are death threats against him. So instead of sitting at the witness tableh where news cameras could film him, he spoke from behind curtains in a corner of the room. Soufan called the contractors' abusive interrogation methods ineffective, unreliable and slow.

Mr. SOUFAN: Waiting 180 hours as part of a sleep deprivation stage is time we cannot afford to waste in a ticking bomb scenario.

SHAPIRO: President Bush has said that harsh interrogations were effective. This is from a speech he gave in 2006.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures.

SHAPIRO: Senator Whitehouse asked Soufan whether President Bush's description accurately reflects what happened at the CIA prison.

Mr. SOUFAN: The president, my own personal opinion here, based on my recollection, he was told, probably, half-truth.

SEN. WHITEHOUSE: And repeated a half-truth obviously. His statement as, as presented, does not conform with what you know to be the case from your experience on hand.

Mr. SOUFAN: Yes, sir.

SHAPIRO: But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, this is not the whole story.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Mr. Chairman, I think there is some information out there that shows that enhanced interrogation techniques did yield good information, and I would like that to be part of this inquiry if we're going to have it.

SHAPIRO: Another witness at the hearing used to be a top State Department lawyer. Philip Zelikow called the treatment of detainees a collective failure.

Mr. PHILIP ZELIKOW (Former State Department Lawyer): 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.

SHAPIRO: In 2005, Zelikow wrote a memo arguing against the Justice Department's legal reasoning on harsh interrogations. He says the White House tried to have that memo destroyed. Yesterday, Zelikow revealed that the State Department has found a copy, and it is now under review to be declassified.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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Ex-FBI Interrogator Calls Harsh Tactics 'Ineffective'

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.

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