WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods used during the Bush administration on terrorism suspects produced unreliable evidence and were ineffective, a former FBI agent told Congress on Wednesday.
Ali Soufan made the charge before a Senate Judiciary panel in the first congressional hearing since the release last month of Justice Department memos that authorized tactics such as waterboarding, sleep and food deprivation and forced nudity.
“These techniques ... are ineffective, slow and unreliable and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda,” said Soufan, who noted that he obtained valuable intelligence from al Qaeda suspects without using harsh methods.
He said he objected to the practices of CIA interrogators.
“I could not stand by quietly while our country’s safety was endangered and our moral standing damaged,” he said.
The hearing occurred amid increasing calls by human rights groups for more investigation and perhaps even criminal prosecutions of Bush administration officials for the techniques denounced by critics as illegal torture.
Soufan also interrogated prisoners at Guantanamo and was a key prosecution witness last year during the only two trials completed in the special tribunals at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. His testimony helped convict Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan, and al Qaeda videographer Ali Hamza al Bahlul.
Soufan, born in Lebanon, was one of a handful of native Arabic speakers at the FBI before the September 11 attacks and was one of the bureau’s top experts on al Qaeda.
During the hearing, a Democratic senator said former Vice President Dick Cheney had been misleading the American people by saying the harsh interrogation methods had produced valuable intelligence.
“Nothing I have seen, including the two documents to which ... Cheney has repeatedly referred, indicates that the torture techniques authorized by the last administration were necessary or that they were the best way to get information out of detainees,” Senator Russ Feingold said.
President Barack Obama also has questioned Cheney’s description of the information contained in the classified documents. In one of his first acts as president, Obama ordered more humane treatment for terrorism suspects.
But Obama objected on Wednesday to the release of dozens of photographs showing the abuse of terrorism suspects, fearing the pictures could trigger a backlash against U.S. troops and impede efforts to fight militants in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Obama administration had said last month it would comply with a court order to release the pictures by May 28.
Feingold, a member of both the judiciary and intelligence committees, said the interrogation program was illegal and undermined national security, adding that he supported a proposal for an independent commission to investigate.
Former State Department counselor Philip Zelikow told the hearing he wrote a memo early in 2006 challenging the Justice Department view that the interrogation tactics complied with anti-torture laws.
Zelikow, who had been a top aide to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said he later heard his memo was not considered appropriate for further discussion and that copies of it should be collected and destroyed.
“The U.S. government adopted an unprecedented program of coolly calculated dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one,” Zelikow said.
“It was a collective failure in which a number of officials and members of Congress and staffers of both parties played a part,” Zelikow said.
additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami and Caren Bohan in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao