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Ali Soufan testifies behind barricade (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

He said, she said

Congress | The first Senate hearing on the enhanced interrogation memos produces differing accounts

WASHINGTON-During Wednesday's Senate Judiciary hearing on memos detailing enhanced interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., accused Bush administration officials of "lies," while Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., questioned whether the hearing was simply a "political stunt."

"There's a lot going on in the world today," said Graham at the outset. "I wonder how this hearing fits into the priorities in people's lives right now."

Meanwhile, Whitehouse said a separate commission to ferret out the Bush administration's actions is "inevitable"-something the Obama administration has opposed, though it hasn't closed the door on prosecution of Bush officials.

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Because of the classified nature of some intelligence documents, and the differing accounts on declassified information, the Hill debate now revolves around the word of different players. For instance, CIA documents show that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was briefed that waterboarding techniques would be used on high-value detainees, but Pelosi has said she never knew that the techniques were in fact employed.

Whitehouse alleged that the intelligence committee had been told "a near avalanche of falsehood on the subject of torture," but said he couldn't publicize the lies because they were classified.

Since President Obama made the controversial decision to release the Justice Department memos in April, debate on Capitol Hill has focused on who knew what when, and what help or harm the enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) were to national security.

Ali Soufan, a former top interrogator for the FBI who went undercover as an al-Qaida operative, testified from behind a barricade at the hearing so he couldn't be photographed.

"These techniques from an operational perspective are slow, ineffective, and unreliable," said Soufan. "I hope you help ensure that these grave, grave mistakes are never made again."

He said he did not testify to "advocate the prosecution of anyone." The interrogation methods issue "is not and should not be a partisan matter."

From his experience interrogating al-Qaida operative Abu Jandal, Soufan concluded that tactical interrogations focused more on a battle of mind and emotion produce sound intelligence. His method of building a relationship with the prisoner produced vital information almost immediately, he said.

"Al-Qaida terrorists are trained to resist torture," Soufan said. "[The EITs] play directly into the enemy's handbook."

He added, "It's easier to hit somebody than outsmart them."

Graham pointed out that Soufan couldn't say that EITs never produced good intelligence-he could only speak from his own experience. Graham said he agreed the harsh techniques should be done away with, but that Congress shouldn't "unnecessarily impede" the work of those providing national security.

"There are two sides to this story," said Graham.

Soufan also interrogated the infamous al-Qaida operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, with another FBI agent as well as a CIA interrogator. The interrogation took place immediately after Mohammed's capture, using Soufan's more relational, Army Field Manual-approved approach, which he said produced intelligence within an hour. But he added that the prisoner shut down when a CIA interrogation team arrived and began harsher techniques, like stripping the detainee.

The CIA account, however, attributes the valuable intelligence to the harsher techniques. FBI Director Robert Mueller removed Soufan from the questioning after he complained about the techniques-but even that topic is under debate, as one Department of Justice report released last spring places Soufan at the interrogations when waterboarding was allegedly happening.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney has been very public in calling for the release of further memos that would show that the EITs were effective in providing intelligence that saved American lives. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she saw the documents Cheney referred to, and that he is "misleading the American people."

Whatever may have happened in the Bush administration, the future of interrogation techniques is a crucial debate because the war on terror is about "90 percent" based on intelligence, said Robert Turner, a national security law professor at the University of Virginia, who also testified Wednesday.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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