U.S. lawmakers Thursday questioned the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney and a former Justice Department official about the Bush administration's approval of harsh interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, it was the first appearance by Cheney aide David Addington before a congressional committee.
Critics of the Bush administration and numerous media reports have described Addington as the driving force behind legal justifications the Justice Department issued allowing tough interrogation techniques.
In nearly four hours of often combative exchanges, lawmakers pressed him and former Justice Department official John Yoo, for specifics.
Asked about a White House meeting reports described as a turning point leading to a controversial August 2002 memo authorizing harsh interrogation techniques, Addington said he was only briefed by Yoo about subjects being considered:
"My memory is of Professor Yoo coming over to see the counsel to the president, and I was invited in the meeting with the three of us, and he gave us an outline of, here are the subjects I am going to address, and I remember when he was done saying here are the subjects I am going to address [I said] good, and then he goes off and writes the opinion," he said.
Addington denied having authored the memo, although he added that this does not mean he had nothing to do with it. He said he didn't believe he ever advocated a president having the power to authorize any form of interrogation even if it crossed the line into torture.
Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked Addington if he ever discussed specific interrogation methods with U.S. officials during visits to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:
SCHULTZ: "Did you discuss specific types of interrogation methods that interrogators should use, while at Guantanamo Bay, on the detainees?"
ADDINGTON: " I don't recall doing that, no."
SCHULTZ: "That means you didn't or you don't recall doing it?"
ADDINGTON: "It means I don't recall doing it as I said."
SCHULTZ: "It's hard to fathom that you would not have a recollection on specific conversations about types of interrogation methods as opposed to just generally talking about interrogation."
Addington said he was not aware of any meeting in which media reports have said Vice President Cheney and other cabinet officials discussed and approved specific interrogation techniques.
He also refused to offer legal opinions or detailed responses on a number of legal questions from lawmakers, including those from Congressman Jerrold Nadler.
NADLER: "Do you believe torture of a restrained detainee could be allowed under a theory of self-defense or necessity?
ADDINGTON: "I haven't expressed an opinion on that Mr. Chairman."
NADLER: "You have not expressed an opinion. Do you have such an opinion?"
ADDINGTON: "I haven't researched the issue myself. I have relied on opinions on the subject issued by the Department of Justice."
Former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo said government lawyers did the best they could in the atmosphere after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to render proper legal opinions. "I believe we in the Justice Department, in examining these questions, did the best that we could, under the circumstances, to call the legal questions as best we could with the materials that we had available, under those circumstances," he said.
But Yoo declined answers on questions involving internal executive branch deliberations, citing restrictions the Justice Department placed on his testimony, and those involving classified information.
Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison pressed him to confirm Addington's account:
ELLISON: "When he just said you came in to tell us what he was going to cover, you cannot confirm that, is that right?"
YOO: "No. I'm not saying that all sir."
ELLISION: "Well, answer my question. Say yes or no."
YOO: "And to it is up to the White House counsel to decide who within the White House."
ELLISON: "Stop sir, I am asking you to tell me, to confirm whether what Mr. Addington reported to this committee was right or not right, it's that simple."
Bush administration policies, Yoo further asserted, have successfully provided information that has enabled the U.S. government to prevent further terrorist attacks.
Republicans Steven King and Trent Franks supported the administration's position that strong interrogation techniques were and still are needed:
KING: "Any little trip along the way would have been turned back on him [President Bush] as having either not taken action against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or not extracting the intelligence that was necessary to protect the American people from a terrorist attack."
FRANKS: "The CIA water boarded 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The results of these severe interrogations were of immeasurable benefit and perhaps saved lives in the American society."
Former Justice Department official, and Professor of Law Christopher Schroeder offered this view of the legal decisions used by the administration. "The memoranda reflect, starkly reflect, an extreme view of absolute and uncontrollable presidential power that has been pursued by this administration, not without dissent among the lawyers inside the Justice Department and other places, but it seems that those dissenting voices don't remain around for very long," he said.
Vice presidential chief of staff Addington testified to the House committee under a subpoena, while former Justice Department official Yoo appeared on his own with an attorney present.