A key congressional committee will try to settle the public debate over the CIA’s harsh interrogation program by investigating whether those methods actually worked, US Senate officials said on Thursday.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation is an attempt to inject fact into an argument that is often shaped by anecdotes and news reports. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details of the committee’s discussions.
US President Barack Obama halted the CIA’s interrogation program last month. The spy agency is now prohibited from employing methods not approved for use by the US military while the program undergoes a White House review to determine whether additional interrogation methods may be necessary.
The Senate committee review seeks to document what actually happened during CIA interrogations and whether valuable information was gained that would not have been obtained otherwise. A report is expected to be released in six months to a year.
The Senate probe is not meant as a first step toward prosecuting CIA officers who used harsh interrogations, the officials said.
Obama administration officials have said they will not seek charges against those who were following guidelines set by the attorney general.
The Intelligence Committee is already investigating the CIA’s destruction in 2007 of videotapes of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah to encompass the origins and effectiveness of the so-called “enhanced interrogation program” authorized by former US president George W. Bush. Scores of secret documents have already been assembled by the committee.
The CIA’s enhanced interrogation methods are secret. But former CIA director Michael Hayden told reporters in January that the tactics — at one point they included waterboarding, which simulates drowning — were effective in eliciting information from the more hardened terror suspects who are taken prisoner.
The CIA held fewer than 100 prisoners at secret detention sites and used enhanced interrogation techniques on about a third of them, Hayden said. He said just three underwent waterboarding, with 2003 the last time it was used.
“I am convinced that the program got the maximum amount of information, particularly out of that first generation of detainees. The Abu Zubaydahs, the Khalid Sheik Muhammeds,” Hayden said, referring to top al-Qaeda operatives who were detained and questioned with harsh techniques.
“I just can’t conceive of any other way, given their character, given their commitment to what it is they do,” Hayden said.
Current CIA Director Leon Panetta, however, is less convinced.
“My personal view at this stage is that the Army Field Manual gives us all of the tools we need,” Panetta said on Thursday at his first on-the-record meeting with reporters.
Committee member Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat and a Senate confidante of Obama’s, said last month that declassifying many of the top-secret documents collected for the videotape investigation would reveal whether severe methods yielded useful intelligence and what the legal arguments were for allowing them.
Critics of coercive interrogation programs say they do not work because those subjected to them will say whatever they think the interrogator wants to hear to make the interrogation stop.
Conversely, they say coercive methods can increase resistance because they confirm the prisoner’s preconceived notions about their jailers and increase a sense of righteous martyrdom.