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Torture Takes Over the Hill

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May 14, 2009

Here in D.C. we’ve had back-to-back hearings touching on the use of torture. Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on torture that featured testimony from former FBI agent Ali Soufan, former State Department advisor and executive director of the 9/11 Commission Philip Zelikow, and several legal experts. The spotlights were firmly on Zelikow and Soufan, who testified to the committee from behind a curtained wall in place to protect his anonymity, as they have each been in the press recently for their opposition to torture. Here’s a little background.

Soufan’s testimony made several interesting points that, if are true, could help to show the torture debate in a new light. He claimed that after the capture of high-level Al Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, he was able to glean more information with traditional interrogation techniques than the harsher techniques imposed on the prisoner after Soufan’s departure.

Also, according to Soufan, the CIA agents who witnessed “harsh interrogation techniques” made their opposition known. It was the introduction of a contractor hired by the CIA, James Mitchell (an expert in the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, program), that brought the brutal techniques. This means that CIA headquarters was ignoring or dismissing the reports from their agents in the field and started to implement their own ideas (or worse, an independent contractor’s) of what would work. Not good.

Next up was Attorney General Eric Holder who faced off with the House Judiciary Committee today in a general Department of Justice (DOJ) oversight hearing. Holder said some encouraging things on many of ACLU’s issues but still wouldn’t commit to naming an independent prosecutor to investigate the use of torture. Some interesting nuggets:

That’s the update, kids.

If nothing else, these hearings have proven that Congress isn’t done with the subject of torture — nor should it be. Unfortunately, as with most hearings on the abuses of the Bush administration, we’re left with more questions than answers. Did CIA agents really object to torture techniques like Soufan testified? How many more facts does the attorney general need to “gather” before appointing an independent prosecutor? Will the American public finally face the disturbing truth of our government’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan? With any luck, the coming months will bring answers to all these questions and more. Maybe if we got that select committee…

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