FORMER vice president Dick Cheney and others have sought to justify the torture of suspected terrorists by claiming it was necessary to obtain actionable intelligence, did not conflict with US and international law, and was needed to safeguard national security. These claims were shredded Wednesday in testimony before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee by Philip Zelikow, former State Department counselor in the Bush administration, and Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who successfully interrogated a key Al Qaeda captive without resort to physical abuse.
These two insiders left no doubt that the Bush administration's "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of detainees, practices forbidden in the US Army Field Manual, violated international law and US statutes while doing more harm than good in the struggle against Al Qaeda terrorists.
Neither witness called for prosecuting the interrogators. But they offered devastating criticisms of the practice. Soufan explained how counterproductive violent interrogations were, and Zelikow recounted arguments inside the Bush administration about the legality and wisdom of the techniques.
Soufan described his successful use of the nonviolent Informed Interrogation Approach prescribed in the Army Field Manual to elicit intelligence from the Al Qaeda captive Abu Zubaydah. But when a CIA team led by an agency contractor arrived, Zubaydah was subjected to harsh treatment - and stopped talking. After Soufan was allowed to resume his own approach, the terrorist once more revealed crucial information about Al Qaeda.
When torture was started again, Soufan asked to be taken off the case. He said the FBI director at the time, Robert Mueller, passed a message saying of the torture, "we don't do that," and pulled him out.
The significance of Soufan's story today is not only that it contradicts Cheney's false claims for the value of torture; it also demonstrates that there were deeply patriotic individuals enrolled in the struggle against Al Qaeda who did not condone, and refused to participate in, illegal acts of torture of prisoners.
For his part, Zelikow peeled away obfuscating arguments for the necessity of torture. Acknowledging that the CIA's harsh methods may have produced some useful intelligence, he nevertheless observed: "The issue is not whether the CIA program of extreme physical coercion produced useful intelligence; it is about its net value when compared to the alternatives." In this, he was concurring with a point President Obama has made: that the use of torture corrodes the character of America.