A former agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who interrogated a top al-Qaida leader says harsh techniques used by the previous Bush administration were not effective and caused the detainee to stop giving information. The comments came in testimony to a Senate panel looking into Bush era interrogation policies.
The former FBI agent, Ali Soufan, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the use of extreme interrogation techniques was counterproductive.
"These techniques, from an operational perspective, are slow, ineffective, unreliable, and harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaida," said Ali Soufan.
Outwitting detainee produces better results
Soufan, testifying from behind a screen to protect his identity, said he and fellow interrogators had obtained what he described as a treasure trove of information from al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah using a non-threatening approach that outwitted the detainee.
"The approach is based on leveraging our knowledge of a detainee's mindset, vulnerabilities and culture, together with using intelligence already known about him," he said. "The interrogator uses a combination of interpersonal, cognitive and emotional strategies to extract the information needed. If done correctly, this approach works quickly and effectively."
Waterboarding did not produce good information
Soufan said when agents from the Central Intelligence Agency took over the interrogations and used such harsh techniques as waterboarding or simulated drowning, Zubaydah stopped giving good information.
The hearing came just weeks after the Obama administration released Bush administration legal opinions that justified the extreme techniques.
Since their release, former Vice President Dick Cheney has given a series of speeches and media interviews defending the enhanced interrogations, saying they saved lives.
But critics, including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who chaired Wednesday's hearing, take issue with Mr. Cheney, and say the techniques amount to torture.
"We were told that torturing detainees was justified by American lives saved, saved by actionable intelligence produced on the water-board," said Senator Whitehouse. "That is far from clear. Nothing I have seen convinces me that that is the case."
Republican senator defends technique
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, argued that those responsible for the interrogation policies had only the best interests of the nation in mind.
"There is not one iota of doubt in my mind that they were trying to protect the nation," said Senator Graham. "But they made mistakes. They saw the law many times as a nicety we could not afford, so they took a very aggressive interpretation of what the law would allow, and that came back to bite us. It always does. But that is not a crime."
Graham's comments were echoed by Robert Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law, University of Virginia School of Law.
"I continue to believe that the people who made these tragic decisions were decent, honorable and able," said Robert Turner. "They were also frightened for their fellow Americans and anxious to do everything within their power to prevent the next 9/11 attack."
Lawyer: Bush administration engaged in 'collective failure'
Former State Department lawyer Philip Zelikow told the Senate panel that Bush administration officials engaged in a "collective failure" in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
"The U.S. government, over the past seven years, adopted an unprecedented program in American history of coolly calculated dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information," said Philip Zelikow. "This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one."
Zelikow drafted a document in 2005 challenging the idea that the harsh techniques complied with anti-torture laws. He said unnamed administration officials sought to collect and destroy copies of the document a year later, but that the efforts were not successful.
Some congressional Democrats have called for prosecution of Bush administration officials responsible for the interrogation policies. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Justice Department would pursue any wrongdoing, but would not seek the "criminalization" of policy differences over such practices.