Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before a congressional panel Thursday about controversial interrogation techniques, including one known as water boarding, carried out by the CIA on key al-Qaida suspects. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.
Ashcroft prefaced his remarks by noting the difficult atmosphere in which U.S. officials were operating in the months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Bush administration's overriding goal, said Ashcroft, one he fully embraced, was to do everything within its power, and within the limits of the law, to keep Americans safe.
"As this Congress and the nation now turn to re-evaluate the work that was done, with the altered perception of seven years of safety, we would all do well to remember the dangers that we faced, and the dangers we still face, and the potentially-catastrophic consequences of error," he said.
Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee questioned Ashcroft about water boarding, which simulates drowning and which is widely considered to be a form of torture.
Ashcroft said he has no reason to question assertions by former CIA Director George Tenet and others that the value of such enhanced interrogation techniques as they are described by the administration exceeded that of other methods.
Ashcroft says he does not know of any acts of torture committed by U.S. officials, and says Department of Justice evaluations determined that water boarding, as carried out on three occasions by the CIA, did not constitute torture:
"If I received information about water boarding being conducted as the CIA had described it, the experts at the department, who very carefully went over this material, uniformly over the last half dozen years under the law in effect at that time, indicated to me that it was not a violation of the law," he said.
The former attorney general had this exchange with Democratic Representative Bobby Scott:
SCOTT: "You are not suggesting that we should forgive torture because we got good information and we are therefore safer? That is not your position."
ASHCROFT: "No that is not my position."
SCOTT: "Is it a defense against torture that traditional techniques were not working?"
ASHCROFT: "Not to my knowledge."
SCOTT: "Is it an exemption from the criminal law on torture that a DOJ [Department of Justice] or an OLC [Office Legal Counsel] wrote a memo that said what people generally perceive to be torture is OK?"
ASHCROFT: "I think the ultimate definition of torture will be rendered in the courts."
Several times during the hearing, Ashcroft declined to confirm his presence at high-level White House meetings in which media reports have said interrogation techniques were discussed in detail.
After initially approving two key Department of Justice memos in 2002 and 2003, Ashcroft said he had no difficulty making a later decision to withdraw both after hearing concerns expressed about the legal reasoning they contained.
These memos were later described in a book by Jack Goldsmith, a former head of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, as "deeply flawed: sloppily reasoned, overbroad, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the President."
Walter Dellinger, a former U.S. assistant attorney general and solicitor general, appeared with Ashcroft at the hearing. "The 2002 and 2003 memoranda, would say whatever the Congress of the U.S. decided ought to be the law, the president can simply disregard. It is a breathtaking claim that the president can simply disregard whatever conclusion the Congress reached, enacted into law, and moreover the president could decided to keep that secret from the Congress and the American people," he said.
The Bush administration has maintained that water boarding as used by the CIA against three top al-Qaida detainees, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was legal. The practice was halted in 2006.
As for current U.S. law regarding torture, and its impact on detainees, lawmakers heard this assessment from Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution:
"Current law articulates flat bans on vaguely defined categories of abuse, torture and cruel and inhuman degrading treatment. These amount in practice to absolute injunctions not to do anything too mean, but leave far too open the question both of what meanness is and the additional question of how much of it is too much," he said.
The House Judiciary Committee hearing was the fifth to examine U.S. interrogation techniques, although other committees have also focused on the issue.