And so the bickering begins.
Any hope that Congress could have a truly nonpartisan discussion about the CIA's interrogation techniques were dashed just minutes into the first formal hearing since the recent release of the agency's so-called torture memos. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, fired the first recriminatory salvo, suggesting that the goal of the hearing conducted by a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee was to get to the bottom of the Bush Administration's "body of lies." Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina fired right back, suggesting that the hearing would be a "political stunt." (See pictures from inside Guantánamo Bay's detention facilities.)
Graham was right and he was a skillful stuntman. He took potshots at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, questioning her recollection of what she was told by the CIA several years ago about the interrogation methods being used. Not to be outdone, Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said former Vice President Dick Cheney "misled the American people" by suggesting that the controversial interrogation techniques had saved thousands of lives.
Pursuing his own hobbyhorse, Senator Patrick Leahy reiterated his call for an independent "truth commission" on Bush-era detention and interrogation policies. (Read an essay by Leahy on the case for a truth commission.)
The politicians were not the only ones with diametrically opposed views. David Luban, a law professor from Georgetown University, described the memos from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) as "an ethical train wreck." The OLC, he said, had tried to "reverse engineer" their memos to try and make illegal actions legal. Jeffrey Addicott, from St. Mary's University School of Law, took the opposite position, saying it was "propaganda" to describe the CIA's methods as torture. "We have tortured no one," he said.
Robert Turner, a law professor at the University of Virginia, took the somewhat charitable view that "good people, fearful for the safety of their fellow Americans, made bad decisions." That was echoed by Philip Zelikow, a former State Department lawyer who wrote a memo opposing the interrogation techniques. The CIA's program represented a "large collective failure" of both parties, Zelikow said. He called for an independent investigation along the lines of the 9/11 commission which Zelikow himself directed. (Zelikow's previous claim that his anti-torture memo was suppressed by the Bush Administration didn't get much attention at the hearing.)
The posturing nearly drowned out the testimony of the only man at the hearing who had real experience extracting vital information from al-Qaeda terrorists: former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan. With cameras turned away from his face in order to protect his identity, Soufan gave a detailed account of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. The suspected al-Qaeda operative, he said, was giving up actionable intelligence including the identities of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the so-called dirty bomber, Jose Padilla long before the controversial interrogation techniques were applied. Once the harsh methods were used, Abu Zubaydah just shut down. When Soufan's protests about the methods went unheeded, the FBI decided to relinquish any role in detainee interrogations. (See pictures of a jihadist's journey.)
Soufan made an impassioned case against harsh interrogation, not only on moral grounds, but also because it is "slow, ineffective and unreliable." Al-Qaeda operatives, he pointed out, are used to much worse torture in Middle Eastern prisons.
While the politicians were effusive in their praise for Soufan, they seemed to pay little notice to his testimony. Graham pointed out that since Soufan was not actually in the room when detainees were being waterboarded, he could not know whether or not the method had yielded useful intelligence. (See six ways to fix the CIA.)
Whitehouse seemed more inclined to use Soufan as a stick to beat President Bush. Reminding Soufan of Bush's claim that Abu Zubaydah had given up the names of Mohammed and Padilla under "enhanced interrogation," the Senator asked if the claim were accurate. Soufan, ducking the unsubtle invitation to call Bush a liar, suggested that the former President was misinformed. "I think the President my own personal opinion here, based on my recollection he was told probably half-truth," Soufan said.
For the current President, the torture memos at the center of the hearing are only part of the growing interrogation controversy. After taking heat over the right to release the memos, Obama now faces flak from the left over his decision to try to prevent the release of new photos showing prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. The White House had previously indicated that it would not contest an earlier federal appeals court ruling, in a case brought by the ACLU, that the images should be released. But now, citing national security and the safety of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Administration says the photos should be kept classified.