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Human Rights Investigator, Attorney John Sifton: Torture Investigation Should Focus on Estimated 100 Prisoner Deaths

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We get reaction to the Senate hearing on torture from private investigator and attorney John Sifton, executive director of One World Research, which carries out research for law firms and human rights groups. Sifton has conducted extensive investigations into the CIA interrogation and detention program. He says any investigation of Bush administration torture and rendition should include an estimated 100 homicides of prisoners in US custody. [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.

Well, right now, I’m joined in our firehouse studio by John Sifton, New York-based private investigator and attorney, executive director of One World Research, which carries out research for law firms and human rights groups. He was formerly at Human Rights Watch as the Asia Division researcher, then senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism. He has conducted extensive investigations into the CIA interrogation and detention program. His latest article has been published by The Daily Beast. It’s called “The Bush Administration Homicides.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHN SIFTON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: First, your response to the testimony yesterday.

JOHN SIFTON: Well, I think it raised a lot of interesting questions about the effectiveness of torture. But those are the wrong debates to be having right now. The reason I wrote about Bush administration homicides, which is not something, you know, I’ve — I worked on for a while. A lot of this was uncovered by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First and the ACLU, all the way back in 2003, 2004, 2005. We knew that up to a hundred detainees had died in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we had published this information previously. But I brought it up again, because I feel like the debate right now about torture is missing the point.

These aggressive techniques were not just limited to the high-value detainee program in the CIA. They spread to the military with disastrous results. They led to the deaths of human beings. And when there’s a corpse involved, when there’s a dead body involved, you can’t just have a debate about policy differences and looking forward or looking backward.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us examples.

JOHN SIFTON: Well, there are detainees as early as 2002 who died in Afghanistan. Some were interrogated by the CIA in closed sites north of Kabul. Others were in the military base at Bagram, beaten to death, literally, by guards who were being instructed by military intelligence officers, you know, to soften detainees up. Later on in Iraq, when the insurgency heated up in August and September of 2003, we saw deaths there, including both CIA interrogation deaths and regular military deaths.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking John Sifton. We’ll come back to him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is John Sifton, private investigator and attorney based here in New York. His latest piece is in The Daily Beast. It’s called “The Bush Administration Homicides.”

Keep going with these examples. And then I want to ask you — well, you’re talking murder, then. And how should it be prosecuted?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, you have, to start, approximately a hundred deaths. The Army has already — the Army Criminal Investigation Command has already determined that a large number of those were homicides, which just means that the death wasn’t the result of natural causes. Then you have to determine whether those homicides were murder.

And the review by Human Rights First, which took place several years ago, showed that in many cases there was good evidence to show that murder had taken place, murder by torture. And yet, the military again and again has closed these investigations. They’ve just sort of petered out.

But there’s a huge amount of documents, tens of thousands of documents. And some of the photographs that are at issue now, with the Obama administration releasing photographs, are photographs that are evidentiary photographs in those investigations.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. Let’s talk about that, because this is very significant. It’s only been framed as, well, this could incite people. Explain the turnaround, if you can, or what the significance of it is, by Obama saying he would release the photographs, because he cared about transparency, and now he’s saying he’s going to hold onto it. This is after visits, reportedly, from General Odierno and now the fired General McKiernan.

JOHN SIFTON: Well, the photographs are obviously very important, but they’re just one side of the coin. There are large amounts of CIA internal documents from the inspector general’s report that the CIA prepared about detainee abuse. There’s a lot of stuff there, a lot of material that Obama can consider releasing. The photographs, obviously, are very important. It’s good that we’re paying attention to them. But the real evidence that shows the way these techniques spread and the involvement of senior Bush administration officials, that’s not photographs. Those are memos. Those are CIA cables from black sites to Langley, notes from meetings between Langley and the White House, things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve requested information?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, the thing about the Freedom of Information Act is that you can’t get operational cables; you can only get things like memos. But an investigation, a criminal investigation, or a Senate or Congress — congressional investigation, you could get some of those cables. And those are very important documents. These are operational cables showing the interrogations’ methodologies, what was approved, who knew about them, showing the notes of meetings in the White House between the principals group, people like Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld. These are important documents. I mean, the photographs are important, because they show viscerally what happened, but the memos show who ordered what happened to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Abu Malik Kenami.

JOHN SIFTON: There was one detainee in Iraq, who was an older gentleman, who was interrogated using the stress techniques that have become all too common in military prisons at the time, forced exercises —- running around, holding your arms out. Try it sometimes, to hold your arms out for as long as you can. You can’t do it for more than a few minutes. These are the kinds of things that Iraqi detainees were routinely asked to do. He was forty-four years old. He was put down to lay down in his cell after this strenuous exercise. Next morning, he was found dead.

This is but one example of the way in which torture can lead to death. People have also been beaten so severely that they develop blood clots that go to their lungs or their head and kill them. I mean, there are various ways you can be tortured to death. If forced exercise [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammad Sayari?

JOHN SIFTON: Sayari, we don’t know. I mean, it looks as though he was interrogated —-

AMY GOODMAN: Who was he?

JOHN SIFTON: He was an Afghan detainee who was picked up by some Special Forces troops in Afghanistan, and he was shot and killed by them at a later point. It’s not clear whether they simply executed him or whether they interrogated him and shot him. But that’s yet another homicide. There are people who have froze to death. People have been beaten to death. Lots of different [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Manadel al-Jamadi?

JOHN SIFTON: This is a CIA detainee who was literally hung to death. I mean, he suffocated because his arms were behind him, handcuffed behind him, and held up to the point where he appears to have suffocated to death. The CIA was implicated in that. And that’s an interesting death, because that was a case where the CIA inspector general referred the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution, possible prosecution, and yet the Department of Justice never took any action. The name of the CIA interrogator in that case is actually publicly known: Mark Swanner.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is he?

JOHN SIFTON: He’s CIA officer. And he’s, for all I know, still walking around in the United States, even though he is implicated in this homicide.

AMY GOODMAN: Hassan Ghul?

JOHN SIFTON: Hassan Ghul, we don’t know whether he’s dead or not. He’s a Pakistani man who was arrested in northern Iraq, is thought to be a link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi-based Jordanian Zarqawi, who was killed by the CIA later -— or by the military later. He was in the CIA high-value detainee program for quite some time. His name is redacted from the memos. You can tell it’s him from the descriptions and because they made one mistake in the redaction where you can see his name. He has now disappeared; we don’t know where he is. He’s not at Guantanamo. There’s no confirmation he’s in Pakistan. In the CIA memos that were released last month, there’s discussion of how sick he is. We think that he may have been tortured to death.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Vice President Dick Cheney was on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday justifying the Bush administration’s use of techniques like waterboarding. Cheney denies that enhanced interrogation techniques amount to torture, insists they produce actionable intelligence. He called on the Obama administration to release all the memos and said stopping these techniques has only made the United States more vulnerable to attack. He also suggested he could be willing to testify under oath in Congress. This is an excerpt.

    DICK CHENEY: We put in place some very good policies, and they worked, for eight years. Now we have an administration that’s come to power that’s been critical of the programs. But not only that, there’s been talk about prosecuting the lawyers in the Justice Department who gave us the opinions that we operated in accordance with, or referring them to the Bar Association for disbarment or sanctions of some kind, or possibly cooperating with foreign governments that are interested in trying to prosecute American officials, those same officials who were responsible for defending this nation for the last eight years.

    Now, that whole complex of things is what I find deeply disturbing. And I think, to the extent that those policies were responsible for saving lives, that the administration is now trying to cancel those policies or end them, terminate them, then I think it’s fair to argue, and I do argue, that that means in the future we’re not going to have the same safeguards we’ve had for the last eight years.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, but why does that make the country less safe? You’re talking about — you say you don’t think we ought to be going back and questioning those people, looking into some of these things. Alright, I’ll take your point on that. But how is that making the country less safe? How does that make the country more vulnerable to an attack in the future?

    DICK CHENEY: Well, at the heart of what we did with the Terrorist Surveillance Program and the enhanced interrogation techniques for al-Qaeda terrorists, and so forth, was collect information. It was about intelligence. It was about finding out what al-Qaeda was going to do, what their capabilities and plans were. It was discovering all those things we needed in order to be able to go defeat al-Qaeda.

    And in effect, what’s happening here, when you get rid of enhanced interrogation techniques, for example, or the Terrorist Surveillance Program, you reduce the intelligence flow to the intelligence community, upon which we base those policies that were so successful.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: How much did President Bush know specifically about the methods that were being used? We know that you — and you have said that you approved this —-

    DICK CHENEY: Right.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: —- somewhere down the line. Did President Bush know everything you knew?

    DICK CHENEY: I certainly, yeah, have every reason to believe he knew — he knew a great deal about the program. He basically authorized it. I mean, this was a presidential-level decision, and the decision went to the President, and he signed off on it.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: Senator Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was on this broadcast recently, and I said, “Do you intend to ask the former vice president to come up?” And he said, “If he will testify under oath.”

    DICK CHENEY: Mm-hmm.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: Would you be willing to testify under oath?

    DICK CHENEY: Well, I’d have to see what the circumstances are and what kind of precedent we were setting. But certainly, I wouldn’t be out here today if I didn’t feel comfortable talking about what we’re doing publicly.

AMY GOODMAN: The former vice president Dick Cheney being interviewed by Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation. John Sifton, your response?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, Dick Cheney doesn’t seem to really understand intelligence gathering if he thinks that most useful intelligence comes from interrogations. Any skilled professional CIA officer will tell you that if you’re relying on interrogations for intelligence, you’re already on the back foot. You’ve already lost the war, so to speak.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, really, the CIA should be out there infiltrating and spying and gaining intelligence from surveillance. I can’t talk about his views on surveillance, but I do know that if you’re to the point where you’re just getting interrogation — where you’re getting intelligence out of people you’ve captured, those people’s intelligence grows stale quickly. It’s just not the type of intelligence gathering that the CIA should aim to carry out.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, of course, Vice President Cheney hasn’t just spoken on Face the Nation; he’s speaking everywhere —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- today giving a major address at the American Enterprise Institute. It surprised a lot of people, because he was so behind-the-scenes, in the shadows, for eight years —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- and now suddenly he’s speaking everywhere he can, or at least in audiences or to reporters that he thinks are friendly. This issue of Vice President Cheney now — what should happen, and the whole question of what should happen with all the people involved around the issue of tortures, who authored them, who was involved in the interrogations — what do you think the Obama administration should do?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, one ironic thing about all this is that if you launched a criminal investigation tomorrow, all these people would stop talking. So we should actually count our blessings that everybody is talking. As long as they’re talking, there’s more evidence being produced.

However, at the end of the road, an investigation needs to occur. And I think politically, since President Obama wants to pass healthcare and do all these other things, the best thing for him to do is wash his hands of this by allowing the Department of Justice to take over, either having an independent prosecutor or making it very clear to Attorney General Eric Holder that he should launch an investigation, that investigations should occur, and —-

AMY GOODMAN: But Obama says he just wants to move forward.

JOHN SIFTON: I know. But as long as he continues to do that, this festers. And if he wants to pass healthcare and everything else, he can just wash his hands of it and start this investigation going.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Cheney’s campaign of speaking out has been successful? I mean, it came after these days -—


AMY GOODMAN: — of speaking out that Obama reversed his position on the pictures.

JOHN SIFTON: Yeah, well, I don’t know if it’s successful yet, but I certainly think that his methodology is one in which he thinks he will be covered if there is ever, God forbid, a terrorist attack on US territory again, and then he will be vindicated, in his mind. I hope Americans are intelligent enough to see through that and realize that it’s not that simple.

AMY GOODMAN: Is his statement that Bush knew — well, couched somewhat, but saying Bush knew — significant?

JOHN SIFTON: Absolutely. We’ve always known that Condoleezza Rice, as the National Security Adviser back in 2003, 2004, personally briefed the President on high-value detention operations and that he signed off on them. But it’s good to hear the Vice President, you know, admit as much and say as much, because I don’t think President Bush should be left off the hook as though he was some kind of absentee president. He was there; he knew what was going on. The principals group is implicated, too, including Mr. Cheney himself and Condoleezza Rice, who often — whose name often gets left out of this.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Condoleezza Rice, who’s now teaching at Stanford?

JOHN SIFTON: Well, Condoleezza Rice was the National Security Adviser. She was the direct liaison between the White House and the CIA. It was she who told George Tenet, you know, to proceed with the enhanced interrogation techniques. It was she who signed off on renditions, which we should also not forget about, the fact that the CIA, even before it was torturing people, was flying them to places like Egypt and Syria to have those intelligence agencies torture them, in which we’re complicit.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama hasn’t stopped extraordinary rendition.

JOHN SIFTON: Yes, that’s — it appears to be correct that he has not, although I do not believe he has kept all the same components as before.

The real issue for Obama is to get the CIA out of the paramilitary business. Right now, they still do arrests, kidnappings. They do paramilitary operations. And what would really be good is if we just moved on and let the CIA go back to intelligence gathering, pure and simple.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton, I want to thank you for being with us. John Sifton, private investigator, executive director of One World Research, formerly at Human Rights Watch as the senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism. He has a piece in The Daily Beast called “The Bush Administration Homicides.”

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