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Senate testimony sheds light on alleged torture

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

May 14, 2009

Senate testimony painted a stunning picture Wednesday of panicked Bush administration officials resorting to harsh interrogation techniques, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remained mum about what she knew when about torture.

Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, ironically has taken the brunt of the fallout from President Obama's releasing of Bush administration "torture memos," which were made public last month against the advice of Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, a former congressman from Monterey.

Another California Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said she is heading a closed-door investigation in the Senate Intelligence Committee she chairs to find out what happened, sorting through thousands of classified documents, including torture memos written by a San Francisco judge and UC Berkeley professor.

Feinstein and other Democrats have begun to rally to Pelosi's defense against Republican charges that Pelosi should have spoken out against torture earlier if she knew about it herself. Feinstein said she wants to find out whether Bush administration officials gave full information to members of Congress who had a constitutional duty to oversee the administration.

Pelosi herself stirred the pot by calling for a "truth commission" after the memos' release. It proved to be her first big stumble in an otherwise relentlessly disciplined leadership.

Senate Judiciary Subcommittee On Administrative Oversight and the Courts member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) delivers an opening statement during a hearing May 13, 2009 in Washington, DC. The subcommittee heard from witnesses about the the so-called "Torture Memos" produced by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush Administration. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Enraged Republicans quickly turned the tables on Pelosi, who was briefed on torture in 2002, as a way to defend the CIA and former Bush officials from potential criminal investigations. Those investigations threatened to zero in on San Francisco Ninth Circuit appellate Judge Jay Bybee and UC Berkeley law Professor John Yoo, who helped provide legal grounds for the harsh techniques when they served in the Bush administration.

Republican's view

"I don't know what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it, and I really don't think she's a criminal that she was told about waterboarding and did nothing," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at a Judiciary Committee panel on torture and the Bush Office of Legal Counsel. "We're talking about this now many years after 9/11. ... It's not really fair to sit here in the quiet and peace of the moment and put ourselves in a holier-than-thou position."

Yet amid the political brawl, testimony Wednesday from a former FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan, and a Bush State Department deputy, Philip Zelikow, revealed a sobering portrait of fear-struck officials resorting to simulated drowning - or waterboarding - extreme sleep deprivation, prolonged confinement in small spaces, humiliation and other interrogation methods without examining their history, their efficacy or their larger consequences in the battle against extremism.

Soufan, testifying behind a screen to shield his identity, painted a picture of incompetence by outside contractors hastily flown in from Washington using "amateurish, Hollywood-style interrogation methods." He also accused Bush administration officials of making false claims about their success.

Soufan said his own interrogations of captured al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, using proven methods of psychological manipulation, had within one hour yielded the identity of the Sept. 11 mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Until then, he said, "we had no idea of KSM's role in 9/11 or his importance in the al Qaeda leadership structure."

Within a few more hours of questioning, Soufan said, he and other interrogators elicited information about alleged "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla.

Inexperienced contractors

But Soufan said he was pulled off the interrogation within a few days, to be replaced by contractors with no expertise in al Qaeda. They soon introduced nudity and sleep deprivation, loud noise and temperature manipulation and confinement in a small box. Zubaydah stopped talking, Soufan said. As the methods progressed, Soufan testified, FBI Director Robert Mueller pulled his agents off the case, saying, "We don't do that (torture)."

Soufan said the harsh techniques ignore knowledge of the detainee, his mind-set, culture and vulnerabilities, trying to force submission rather than elicit cooperation.

Aside from legal and diplomatic complications, he said, torture poses practical problems. Terrorists are trained to resist it. That is why, he said, "the contractors had to keep getting authorization to use harsher and harsher methods until they reached waterboarding and there was nothing they could do but use that technique again and again." Abu Zubaydah was subject to waterboarding 83 times, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times.

Information gleaned from torture may be unreliable and lead agents on goose chases. Its use also resurrected the "Chinese Wall" between the FBI and the CIA, obstructing information sharing, one reason the Sept. 11 plot went unnoticed in the first place.

Atmosphere of terror

If Soufan gave the Senate an inside view of interrogations, Zelikow provided a look into fierce debates within the Bush administration over the techniques and an atmosphere of terror inside the White House, which was fielding reports of apocalyptic threats that have never been made public.

Zelikow described a strange dynamic between bearded undercover agents overseas and deferential officials in wood-paneled Washington suites who were "rarely aware" of arguments in the field over what to do.

He said the CIA had no institutional capability to question enemy captives and so "improvised an unprecedented, elaborate, systematic program of medically monitored physical torment." It ostensibly was based on U.S. military training to help soldiers resist torture, and then "sold to policymakers as being no more than 'what we do to our own trainees.' "

He said the government's top legal officers "assured the government's leaders that the proposed program was lawful." The history of interrogation techniques, and valuable experience gained in World War II when the stakes were every bit as high, may have been ignored during critical White House debates, he said.

The question is not whether the CIA program produced useful intelligence, he argued. It did, as would be expected from an agency that had exclusive custody of top terror suspects for years. He said the question is in comparison to what, including interrogations in Iraq that produced valuable information without torture.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has opened an aggressive public crusade to challenge such arguments, insisting on declassifying memos that show the harsh interrogations saved potentially hundreds of thousands of American lives.

Pelosi, back from a trip to Iraq, has scheduled her weekly news conference for today. She is unlikely to veer from her position that she was told in a briefing Sept. 4, 2002, that the administration had legal grounds to use the techniques but had not begun using them, a position at odds with a CIA timeline that said Pelosi has been briefed on techniques that "had been employed."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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