WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate panel has heard testimony about policies under former President George W. Bush that permitted harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, which some consider torture.
Members of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party said this and future hearings are aimed at exploring the efficacy of such methods, whether using them was a mistake, and what the country can learn from the experience.
As the hearing got under way, Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) said the goal of the hearing was not to assign blame for any mistakes that may have been made, but to learn.
"I'm a proud American; I think all Vermonters are. I'm proud of the history of this country. I'm proud of the times our country's upheld the rule of law," Leahy said.
"I'm also proud of the fact that the United States of America, when it's made mistakes, has not been afraid to admit those mistakes, and learned from them, and pledged not to make the same mistakes again. That's why we have this hearing, and that's why the American people deserve to know what mistakes were made and what we intend to do about it," he said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California) said the hearings will also try to determine whether less drastic measures could have elicited the same information from terror suspects.
One witness testifying before the committee -- former federal interrogator Ali Soufan --- said he got better information out of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected associate of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, than subsequent interrogators were able to get using harsher techniques.
Soufan's testimony -- delivered from behind a screen to hide his identity -- supported those who believe that the more painful the interrogation, the more the detainee resolves to stay silent.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) read out the testimony of an interrogator from the U.S. Air Force.
"In my experience, when interrogators use harsh methods that fit the definition of abuse, in every instance that method served only to harden the resolve of the detainee and made them more resistant to interrogation," Whitehouse read.
"The second pragmatic argument against torture and abuse is the fact that Al-Qaeda used our policy that authorized and encouraged these illegal methods as their No. 1 recruiting tool for foreign fighters. While I supervised interrogations in Iraq, I listened to a majority of foreign fighters state that the reason they'd come to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse committed at Abu Ghraib [prison] and Guantanamo Bay," Whitehouse continued.
Whitehouse quoted the Air Force interrogator as saying it's not an exaggeration to say that the policy permitting harsh interrogations has cost the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. military service members.
Acted Out Of Concern
Another witness was Philip Zelikow, a top adviser to Condoleezza Rice when she was Bush's secretary of state. During debate on interrogation methods within Rice's office, Zelikow argued that harsh methods such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning, was illegal.
But he said no matter what one may think of the methods themselves, the people who argued in favor of them acted out of concern for their fellow countrymen.
"I think, in many ways, this was a large collective failure in which a lot of Americans -- a lot of Americans from both parties -- thought they needed a program like this in order to protect the country," Zelikow said. "I think we can now judge that to have been a mistake.
"Therefore it's important -- since this is a collective failure, and it was a mistake -- to learn from that mistake, comprehend why we made it," he continued.
Robert Turner, who teaches national security law at the University of Virginia, compared the use of harsh interrogation to the decision by former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II. Today that policy is considered a black mark on American history.
"Some may think that good people can't do bad things," Turner said. "I would remind those people that on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 966 that ordered the detention and incarceration of more than 100,000 Americans without probable cause, judicial sanction, or the slightest individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. Most of those detained were U.S. citizens, many of them had been born in this country and never even visited Japan. Their crime was to have Japanese ancestors."
One member of the subcommittee, Senator Lindsay Graham (Republican-South Carolina), called the hearing "a political stunt." Graham accused the majority Democrats who run the subcommittee of trying to pass judgment on honorable people for partisan reasons.
Yet Graham also made it clear, as he has previously, that he doesn't believe the U.S. government should condone such extreme forms of interrogation. He said it's not only morally wrong, but politically untenable.
But he added that the people who argued for enhanced interrogation are guilty of nothing more than making mistakes.
"I've always believed that when you engage in harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding, eventually it comes back to bite you. And it has," Graham said. "It's just not, I think, necessary to win the war. But the people who were devising these interrogation techniques right after 9/11 were not criminals. They were what you said, Mr. Turner, they were Americans who were afraid that the next attack is on its way.