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Former FBI Interrogator, Ex-State Dept. Counselor Criticize Torture Memos at Senate Panel Hearing

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The Senate Judiciary Committee held the first congressional hearing on prisoner interrogation Wednesday since the release of Bush administration memos authorizing torture. Former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan called the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques “slow, ineffective, unreliable and harmful,” while former State Department counsel Philip Zelikow said he was told to destroy a memo he wrote criticizing the torture’s authorization. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has reversed his position and says he will now prevent the release of photographs of US soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. The news broke just as the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on detainee interrogation and torture Wednesday. It was the first hearing on the Bush administration’s harsh interrogation methods since the Obama administration released the so-called “torture memos” authorizing them.

A former FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who had interrogated high-level al-Qaeda suspects, testified at the hearing, but from behind a wooden screen to hide his identity. Soufan said the Bush administration’s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques were, quote, “slow, ineffective, unreliable and harmful.” In contrast, he described the less threatening interrogation method he had used on suspects, including Abu Zubaydah.

    ALI SOUFAN: The interrogator uses a combination of interpersonal, cognitive and emotional strategies to extract the information needed. If done correctly, this approach works quickly and effectively, because it outsmarts the detainee using a method that he is not trained nor able to resist. The Army Field Manual is not about being soft. It’s about outwitting, outsmarting and manipulating the detainee.

    The approach is in sharp contrast of the enhanced interrogation method that instead tries to subjugate the detainee into submission through humiliation and cruelty. A major problem is it — it is ineffective. Al-Qaeda are trained to resist torture. As we see from the recently released DOJ memos on interrogation, the contractors had to keep requesting authorization to use harsher and harsher methods.

    In the case of Abu Zubaydah, that continued for several months, right ’til waterboarding was introduced. And waterboarding itself had to be used eighty-three times, an indication that Abu Zubaydah had already called his interrogators’ bluff. In contrast, when we interrogated him using intelligent interrogation methods, within the first hour we gained important actionable intelligence.

    This amateurish technique is harmful to our long-term strategy and interests. It plays into the enemy’s handbook and recreates a form of the so-called Chinese wall between the CIA and the FBI. It also taints sources, risks outcomes, ignores the endgame, and diminishes our moral high ground.

    My interest in speaking about this issue is not to advocate the prosecution of anyone. Examining a past we cannot change is only worthwhile when it helps guide us towards claiming a future, a better future that is yet within our reach. For the last seven years, it has not been easy objecting to these methods when they had powerful backers.

AMY GOODMAN: Former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan. Soufan was questioned by both Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. In response to Soufan’s testimony Senator Whitehouse read a statement from President Bush that said enhanced interrogation had actually led to useful information.

    SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: On September 6, 2006, President Bush stated the following: “Within months of September 11, 2001, we captured a man named Abu Zubaydah. We believed that Zubaydah was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden…Zubaydah was severely wounded during the firefight that brought him into custody, and he survived only because of the medical care arranged by the CIA.

    “After he recovered, Zubaydah was defiant and evasive. He declared his hatred of America. During questioning, he at first disclosed what he thought was nominal” — nominal — “information and then stopped all cooperation…We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that [Zubaydah] had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so, the CIA used an alternative set of procedures.”

    Does that statement by the President accurately reflect the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah?

    ALI SOUFAN: Well, the environment that he’s talking about, yes, it reflects — you know, he was injured, and he needed medical care. But I think the President —- my own personal opinion here, based on my recollection, he was told probably half-truth.

    SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: And repeated half-truth, obviously. His statement, as presented, does not conform with what you know to be the case -—

    ALI SOUFAN: Yes, sir.

    SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: — from your experience on-hand.

    ALI SOUFAN: Yes, sir.

    SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you believe that any good information was obtained through harsh interrogation techniques? Can you say that there was no good information?

    ALI SOUFAN: Well, from what I know on the Abu Zubaydah, I would like you to evaluate the information that we got before —-

    SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, the Vice President’s 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 -—


    ALI SOUFAN: — and it’s easier to hit someone than outsmart them.

    SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I understand that you believe you got it right and you know how to do it and these other people don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham questioning former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.

Former State Department counselor and former head of the 9/11 Commission, Philip Zelikow, also testified at the hearing. He criticized the memos authorizing the interrogations from the Office of Legal Counsel and revealed that the memo he wrote offering an alternative view on the legality of torture has now been located and could be declassified shortly.

    PHILIP ZELIKOW: It seemed to me that the OLC interpretation of US Con law in this area was strained and indefensible, in a whole variety of ways. My view was that I could not imagine any federal court in America agreeing that the entire CIA program could be conducted and it would not violate the American Constitution.

    So I distributed my memo analyzing these legal issues to other deputies at one of our meetings in February 2006. I then took off to the Middle East on other work. When I came back, I heard the memo was not considered appropriate for further discussion and that copies of my memo should be collected and destroyed. That particular request, passed along informally, did not seem proper, and I ignored it.

    This particular memo has evidently been located in the State’s files and is being reviewed for declassification. But in sum, the US 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. It was a collective failure in which a number of officials and members of Congress and staffers of both parties played a part.

AMY GOODMAN: Former State Department lawyer and head of the 9/11 Commission, Philip Zelikow, testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

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