Senate Reviews Tough Interrogation Tactics

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The Senate Armed Services Committee is trying to determine how and when U.S. interrogators began using harsh methods as they questioned terrorism suspects at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

To Washington now, where a Senate committee tried once again to understand what led to the Bush administration's decision to use harsh interrogations for detainees held at U.S. military prisons. This effort has been going on for more than four years, ever since the scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison broke. The abuse of prisoners there at the hands of U.S. service personnel first highlighted the aggressive interrogation policies.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports on today's hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

JACKIE NORTHAM: There has been no shortage of investigations of the administration's decisions regarding harsh interrogation tactics. The Senate Armed Services Committee alone has held 17 briefings or hearings. Today's focus on the genesis of the tough interrogation techniques that were initially used at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and are believed to have been exported to American interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today the committee released a previously secret 2002 transcript from the minutes of a meeting at Guantanamo. Senator Carl Levin, the committee chairman, quotes John Fredman, a CIA lawyer, who says in that memo that whether harsh interrogation techniques amount to torture is a matter of perception, and that the only real test for torture is whether a detainee dies.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong. How on earth did we get to the point where a senior U.S. government lawyer would say that whether or not an interrogation technique is torture is, quote, "subject to perception" and that if, quote, "the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong"?

NORTHAM: The committee tried to thread together a timeline from 2002, when officials in the Pentagon first wanted to find ways to get better, more timely information while questioning terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Several military witnesses today testified that senior Pentagon lawyers turned to a U.S. military program that trains personnel how to resist coercive interrogation methods and used those methods on Guantanamo detainees. The methods include abusive techniques such as stress positions, sleep deprivation and waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

Several of those techniques were later approved by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. There was fierce opposition by lawyers across the military services, but a small cadre of legal advisers in the administration approved of the techniques. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina wondered how things could have gone so far.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, 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 shortsighted legal analysis ever provided to our nation's military intelligence communities.

NORTHAM: Several military lawyers also testified, including Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, who was the top lawyer at Guantanamo until 2003. She wrote a legal opinion that said abusive interrogation techniques could be used on detainees because they are not considered prisoners of war. Beaver said she was shocked that no other military legal experts weighed in.

Lieutenant Colonel DIANE BEAVER (U.S. Army): I did not expect that my opinion as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Judge Advocate Generals Corp would become the final word on interrogation policies and practices within the Department of Defense. For me, such a result was simply not foreseeable. Perhaps I was somewhat naive, but I did not expect to be the only lawyer issuing a written opinion on this monumentally important issue.

NORTHAM: Alberto Mora, the former top lawyer in the Navy, testified today as well. Like other senior military lawyers, he testified that his concerns about the interrogation techniques were ignored and that he was cut out of the discussions by senior Pentagon officials. By the end of the hearing, it felt as though most of the information has been rehashed, the discussion heard before. The difference between now and when the issue of harsh interrogations was first uncovered is that most of the key players have now left the administration.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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