WASHINGTON — A former FBI special agent who interrogated senior al Qaida captives told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that harsh interrogation techniques are "ineffective, slow and unreliable," and disputed claims by former vice president Dick Cheney and others that they helped uncover major terrorist plots.
Ali Soufan, a veteran FBI investigator, said that CIA officials and others responsible for the extreme measures inflated the program's successes and downplayed the consequences of physical abuse.
"The situation was, and remains, too risky to allow someone to experiment with amateurish, Hollywood-style interrogation methods that in reality taints sources, risks outcomes, ignores the end game and diminishes our moral high ground," Soufan said.
"It was one of the worst and most harmful decisions made in our efforts against al Qaida," he said.
Former State Department official Philip Zelikow, who in 2005 was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's point man in a battle to overhaul the Bush administration's detention and interrogation policies, joined Soufan in criticizing the use of techniques such as waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning that's widely considered torture.
Zelikow said the U.S. could combat terrorism without resorting to extreme methods.
"Others may disagree," he said. "The government, and the country, needs to decide whether they are right. If they are right, our laws must change, and our country must change. I think they are wrong."
Cheney has argued that the now-defunct CIA program, which included a global network of secret prisons, produced valuable intelligence that thwarted terror attacks and saved American lives.
Cheney, who's scheduled to give a major speech on the subject next week at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington policy organization, has called for the release of two classified CIA memos that he says detail the program's successes.
However, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a member of the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, said he's seen the two documents and they don't prove Cheney's case.
Soufan's testimony apparently was the first public appraisal by a senior U.S. government interrogator who dealt directly with suspected terrorists in CIA custody.
It came a month after President Barack Obama released four Bush-era Justice Department legal memos justifying methods that included confinement boxes, sleep deprivation and slamming detainees into walls. That reopened the debate over whether top Bush officials should be investigated and prosecuted for their actions.
Adding to the drama, Soufan testified from behind a screen where the senators, but not the audience, could see him. Since at least one photo of Soufan is available on the Internet, the reason for the security measures wasn't readily apparent.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who's also an Air Force Reserve lawyer, said the Bush administration erred in its reading of the law but argued that harsh interrogation techniques sometimes produce valuable information.
He challenged Soufan to dispute that.
"I can only speak to my experience," the former FBI agent replied.
"That's the point, isn't it?" Graham retorted.
ï¿½Soufan was a lead FBI interrogator of Abu Zubaydah, one of the first major al Qaida figures to be captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The initial interrogation of Zubaydah, using the bureau's traditional, rapport-building techniques, yielded valuable intelligence, including the role of Khalid Sheik Mohammed as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, he said.
Then-CIA director George Tenet congratulated the interrogators — until he learned that they were from the FBI, not the CIA, Soufan said. A team from the CIA's Counterterrorism Center that included a government contractor quickly replaced him and his colleagues. They introduced harsh interrogation techniques, and Zubaydah's cooperation stopped, Soufan said.
After complaints from officials in Washington about the dried-up intelligence flow, Soufan and colleagues reverted to the traditional approach, and Zubaydah began talking again.
To bolster the Democrats' case against torture, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., released summaries of Soufan's interrogations of another al Qaida figure, Abu Jandal, who was a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden. Without being tortured, Jandal divulged intimate details and personal histories of bin Laden's inner circle, the 100 pages of documents appear to show.
The hearing took place amid an escalating political fracas over what congressional Democrats knew at the time about the CIA program. Republicans say that documents call into question House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's contention that she wasn't briefed about waterboarding.
Zelikow called the CIA program "a collective failure, in which a number of officials and members of Congress (and staffers), of both parties played a part."
Zelikow wrote a classified February 2006 memo challenging the legal reasoning of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. The White House responded by ordering copies of the memo destroyed, but Zelikow said his six-page document has been retrieved from State Department files and is undergoing declassification review.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY