- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

A top adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and one-time director of the Sept. 11 commission Wednesday decried the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, calling it a “mistake” by officials and lawmakers from both political parties.

“This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one,” Philip Zelikow said at the first congressional hearing since the release of CIA memos documenting the harsh techniques. “It was a collective failure in which a number of officials and members of Congress and staffers of both parties played a part.”

Democratic senators countered that members of Congress who were briefed by the CIA on the techniques can’t be blamed because they had no way to object at the time. The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat said charges of hypocrisy in the sharpening debate over techniques that President Obama has said amount to torture are unfounded.

“Many people seem to be suggesting that if members of Congress at the highest level are informed, that they are some how complicit. And I haven’t seen that,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has come under fire from Republicans for attacking the use of the interrogation techniques, including waterboarding - a form of simulated drowning, on which she was briefed by the CIA in 2002. High-ranking lawmakers from both parties received classified briefings on the techniques over several years and did not actively seek to end their use.

One Republican senator at the hearing questioned why CIA officials would have told lawmakers about the program if they were doing something unlawful.

“If you’re trying to commit a crime, it seems like that’d be the last thing you do. … You would not go around telling people on the other side of the aisle about it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “These interrogation techniques were shared with members of Congress who somehow can’t remember what they’re told.”

Under the Bush administration, the Justice Department said waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other techniques used are legal under U.S. and international law.

The Judiciary subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts heard testimony from a former interrogator and several scholars, most of whom agreed that techniques outlined in recently declassified Justice Department memos were illegal.

Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who went undercover as an al Qaeda operative and later conducted interrogations, told lawmakers that he was able to obtain “actionable intelligence” regarding Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network without using harsh techniques.

Testifying from behind a black curtain to protect his identity, Mr. Soufan argued that methods in the Army Field Manual are more effective than harsher tactics and that waterboarding and other techniques can jeopardize a suspect’s cooperation.

“There is no way to know whether the detainee is being truthful or just speaking to either mitigate his discomfort or to deliberately provide false information,” he said.

Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, accused former Vice President Dick Cheney of “misleading the American people” by asserting that using harsh interrogation tactics helped keep Americans safe. Mr. Cheney has said classified CIA memos prove that the tough questioning methods protected the nation from more terrorist attacks after Sept. 11.

“Nothing I have seen - including the two documents to which former Vice President Cheney has repeatedly referred - indicates that the torture techniques … were necessary,” said Mr. Feingold, a member of the Senate intelligence committee who has access to classified documents.

Mr. Durbin, a former member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, echoed Mrs. Pelosi’s explanation for why she did not raise concerns when she was briefed by the CIA in September 2002.

“There were times when you wanted to express your disapproval and there was no means to do so,” he said.

In 2005, Mr. Zelikow wrote a memo that said the techniques approved by the Justice Department violated the U.S. Constitution. It was part of an internal debate in the Bush administration. The State Department clashed with Mr. Cheney and Justice over the practices.

Miss Rice opposed use of the techniques after initially supporting them after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said U.S. Circuit Judge Jay Bybee, who approved the procedures while at the Justice Department, declined to testify.

The escalating fight about the techniques revolve around some Democrats’ desire to pursue prosecutions against lawyers and officials who devised the procedures they consider torture. Republicans say the architects of the plan worked within the confines of the law and should not face criminal charges because the political winds have changed.

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