Congress inches toward 'truth commission' for torture probe

Democrats and Republicans are finding little common ground, leading some Senators to say an independent investigator is needed.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont speaks with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California during a hearing Wednesday about the interrogation techniques used during the previous administration.

Congress is in danger of losing control of its own investigations into Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” methods – leading to calls for an independent “truth commission” to resolve the tough, increasingly partisan issues.

A Democrat-led Senate panel started the day intending to focus on a narrow issue: What role did a handful of Bush administration lawyers play in enabling interrogation tactics that critics say amount to torture?

But Republicans sought to broaden the issue, shifting blame back to Congress. They asked: What did members of Congress know, and what, if anything, did they do about it?

The session was the first congressional hearing on the subject since the Obama administration released four Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel memos that authorized waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques. The partisan fireworks cast doubts on Congress's ability to carry out a bipartisan investigation that will be credible with the public.

Other hearings and congressional probes lie ahead, but a truth commission will ultimately be needed to get to the bottom of all the allegations, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island.

"The lies are legion,” said Senator Whitehouse, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, which held the hearing. “We were told that waterboarding was determined to be legal, but we’re not told how badly the law was ignored, bastardized, and manipulated by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel."

Republicans mounted a sharp counterattack.

“If we’re going to find out who did what when, we need to find out who was told about it and when they were told about it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina at today’s hearing.

“Now, I don’t know what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it, and I really don’t think she’s a criminal if she was told about waterboarding and did nothing. But I think it is important to understand that members of Congress allegedly were briefed about these interrogation techniques,” he added.

As the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R) of California said that she had been briefed about the prospect of waterboarding, but was not aware that it was being used in practice.

But a CIA document released last week at GOP urging cited 40 classified briefings with top Democratic and Republican lawmakers on interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. The report, covering briefings between September 2002 and March 2009, relit the controversy.

Democrats are wary that broadening the scope of the investigation not only threatens leaders like Representative Pelosi, but could also compromise the climate for other congressional investigations by politicizing the issue further.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently launched a major probe of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The panel plans months of review of unredacted papers, documents, cables, e-mails, and interviews.

"The work will be done fairly and professionally and in a strong bipartisan manner, and I want to stress that,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who chairs the panel.

She questioned the wisdom of sensational hearings before doing the hard work of thorough investigation. “To make this an explosive issue without carefully laying out all of the facts, conditions, cables, directives, and the whole situation, will be a big, big mistake,” she added.

Moreover, a partisan firefight about who knew what when could shift attention from a key debate: Does the government need secret detentions and harsh interrogation techniques to keep the nation safe?

Former FBI counterterrorist investigator Ali Soufan testified Wednesday that these methods are “slow, ineffective, unreliable, and harmful to the nation’s efforts to defeat Al Qaeda."

But Senator Graham wants to leave interrogators' options open. "Let's not unnecessarily impede the ability of this country to defend itself against an enemy who is, as I speak, thinking of plotting their way back into America."

“One of the reasons these techniques have survived for about 500 years is that apparently they work,” he said.

It’s a view that was disputed by several witnesses at Wednesday's hearing.

“The US government over the past seven years adopted an unprecedented program in American history of cruelly calculated, dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one,” said Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, or 9/11 commission.

Soufan said that harsh techniques are slow. He cited examples detailed in the memos, such as preventing a detainee from sleeping for 180 hours or waterboarding detainee Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times.

“It was a mistake to abandon a [traditional] approach that was working, and naively replace it with an untested method," such as waterboarding, he said. "It was one of the worse and most harmful decisions made in our efforts against al Qaeda."

At Wednesday's hearing, Senator Feinstein noted that witnesses such as Mr. Soufan will be asked to appear before her intelligence panel – but only “at the right time, when we have the facts."

Senate Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont renewed his calls for a nonpartisan commission to “get to all the truth of what happened.”

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