Ex-FBI interrogator Ali Soufan and a former State Department counselor Philip Zelikow told the Senate Judiciary administrative oversight and the courts subcommittee that the harsh interrogation methods used against terror suspects were abusive and did not help in the battle against al Qaeda.
Zelikow, who advised then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, questioned the legality of the harsh interrogations in a May 2005 memo to the Justice Department, which he claimed was lost by the Bush administration. He said at the hearing today that his memo has been found as he continued to stand behind the advice he gave to Main Justice.
“The U.S. government adopted an unprecedented program of coolly calculated dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information,” Zelikow said before the subcommittee. “This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one.”
Soufan — who interrogated suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah — said harsh techniques including nudity and sleep deprivation were “borderline torture” that did not work. He added that he was not involved with the 83 times Zubaydah was waterboarded.
“These techniques, from an operation perspective, are ineffective slow and unreliable, and as result harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda,” Soufan said from behind a curtain that concealed his identity.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) condemned waterboarding – that was also used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The Republican said although Bush officials weren’t perfect, they did not break any laws when they authorized the harsh interrogation methods.
“They made mistakes,” Graham said. “They took a very aggressive interpretation of the law.”
Democrats present including Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) disputed the legality of the harsh interrogation methods.
Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the authorization of the interrogation techniques a “fundamental breakdown of the rule of law.” Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the Bush administration legal opinions on the methods were discounted in Supreme Court decisions.
Graham argued that the interrogations could have saved lives, and forcing the executive branch into compliance with the Army Field Manual when dealing with interrogations could have a chilling effect on the president. Interrogators were acting in compliance with the Army Field Manual at the time the harsh interrogations were conducted. A 2006 version of the guide prohibited waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods.
“If we restrict ourselves to the field manual, then shame on us,” Graham said. “It is a guide for soldiers on the field.”
Whitehouse, who chairs the subcommittee, said there is no evidence that harsh interrogation methods helped elicit pertinent information from suspected terrorists.
“We were told that torturing detainees was justified by American lives saved – saved as a result of actionable intelligence produced on the waterboard,” Whitehouse said. “This is far from clear. Nothing I have seen as a member of Intelligence Committee convinces me this was the case.”
In addition to Soufan and Zelikow, professors David Luban, Robert Turner and Jeffrey Addicott testified at the hearing. Only Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law, agreed with Graham that the Bush administration made mistakes, but did not break the law.
Luban, a law professor at Georgetown University, said the memos authored by then-DOJ Office of Legal Counsel lawyers Jay Bybee, John Yoo and Steven Bradbury were “a legal train wreck.”
“Unfortunately, the interrogation memos fall far short of professional advice and independent judgment,” Luban said. “They involved a selective and in place deeply eccentric reading of the law.”
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Leading House Judiciary Committee Democrats requested a memo written by former State Department counselor Philip Zelikow that reportedly argued that harsh interrogation methods used against suspected terrorists were illegal. Read the letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton here and the letter to Acting Archivist of the United States Adrienne Thomas here.
The letters were signed by Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and panel members Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.). The letters were sent last week but released publicly today.
Zelikow wrote on the Foreign Policy blog late last month that he questioned the legality of the interrogation methods authorized by the Bush administration in a May 2005 memo to the Justice Department. He said the Bush administration tried to destroy this memo.
“My colleagues were entitled to ignore my views,” Zelikow wrote. “They did more than that: The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo.”
He said on the blog that Americans “could constitutionally be hung from the ceiling naked, sleep deprived, water-boarded, and all the rest — if the alleged national security justification was compelling.” He added: “I did not believe our federal courts could reasonably be expected to agree with such a reading of the Constitution.”
Zelikow was counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the Bush administration and executive director of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.