He came, they saw, and nobody learned much of anything - David Addington, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, skated through three hours of committee testimony Thursday without revealing much other than disputing reports of his vast influence on the war on terror.
The House Judiciary Committee was hoping to connect the dots on the Bush administration's detainee treatment policy, which has come under fire from Democrats and some Republicans that it allows behavior that constitutes torture.
But the witnesses only managed to complicate the picture, telling the committee press reports have inaccurately drawn a picture of a coordinated effort to approve tough interrogation techniques Democrats and some Republicans say amounts to torture.
Mr. Addington denied reports he told interrogators to "do whatever needed to be done," disputing a Vanity Fair report. And John Yoo, a former Justice Department lawyer who helped write some of the early legal memos on treatment, told the panel key memos did go to the office of former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Press reports have said Mr. Ashcroft didn't see the memos, which were requested by the White House, and was angry about that.
"That is new. It contradicts what we thought we knew," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and chairman of the Constitution subcommittee. "We'll have to ask Mr. Ashcroft."
Mr. Yoo and Mr. Addington both said the memos and policies on treatment of detainees had to be viewed in the context of the days immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Mr. Addington said Americans are making a mistake if they think that threat has receded.
"Things are not as different today as people seem to think. We're dealing with intelligence on threats every day," he said, adding that people can disagree over how to respond to the threats, "but no American should think 'We're free, the war is over, al Qaeda is not coming and they're not interested in getting us,' because that's wrong."
The hearing had been highly anticipated by Democrats, and liberal groups gave it close attention, with members of women's protest group Code Pink in attendance and liberal-leaning Pacifica Radio reporting live from inside the hearing room.
The interest was stoked by press descriptions of Mr. Addington as the most unknown important man in Washington, the power behind the vice president's office and a key advocate of asserting executive power.
During the hearing, though, Democrats said they weren't getting any information and blamed the witnesses for drawing out their answers. At one point a Democrat ridiculed Mr. Yoo for questioning what lawmakers meant by the word "implement."
"I think we understand the games that are being played," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and chairman of the full committee.
For the most part, Democrats expressed mere frustration, but at one point Massachusetts Rep. Bill Delahunt's anger showed through when Mr. Addington said he couldn't talk about particular interrogation techniques because President Bush has said that could aid al Qaeda and "al Qaeda may watch these meetings."
"Well, I'm sure they are watching. I'm glad they finally have a chance to see you, Mr. Addington," Mr. Delahunt replied.
"I'm sure you're pleased," Mr. Addington shot back.
Mr. Yoo, who is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, repeatedly said he was bound by a gag declaration imposed by the Justice Department. Mr. Nadler demanded Mr. Yoo cite exactly what legal privileges he was using to refuse to answer questions, and Mr. Yoo said he was respecting attorney-client privilege and laws prohibiting divulging classified information.
Mr. Nadler said they would revisit whether those claims were valid, and may recall Mr. Yoo in closed session.
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