Terror Watch: Interrogating the Interrogators

After years of largely ignoring the issue, two Senate committees have launched major inquiries into the handling of terrorist suspects captured after the September 11 attacks, congressional staffers tell NEWSWEEK. Although they are still in the early stages, the probes into allegations of torture, abduction and mistreatment of detainees hold the potential for an even bigger congressional showdown with the White House (and ultimately Attorney General Alberto Gonzales) than the current standoff over the firing of U.S. attorneys.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is conducting an inquiry into "detainee abuse," said Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Sen. Carl Levin, the new Democratic chairman of the panel. The probe is a formal, full-scale investigation and several committee staffers have been assigned to it, according to a Senate staffer who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. At the same time, the Senate Intelligence Committee, under new chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, has launched its own "review" of detention, interrogation and "extraordinary rendition" activities of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, said Wendy Morigi, a spokeswoman for Rockefeller. An official familiar with the Intelligence Committee inquiry said that Rockefeller has already held one closed-door hearing on rendition and will soon hold another classified hearing on CIA detention activities.

The Pentagon has been grappling with how to deal with allegations of mistreatment as it prepares to launch trials of Al Qaeda suspects before military tribunals. Just last week, the Defense Department released a statement by one of the most prized detainees, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, in which the former Al Qaeda operations chief personally took credit for the September 11 attacks and more than 30 other terror plots. (In a rambling diatribe, Mohammed also appeared to relish his status as an "enemy combatant" and compared Osama bin Laden to George Washington.)

But the Pentagon censored portions of Mohammed's statement, deleting passages in which he appeared to make allegations of abuse while in CIA custody. The Associated Press reported this week that U.S. officials and members of Congress were recently briefed about a confidential International Red Cross report that recorded claims of abuse from others among the 14 "high-value" Al Qaeda prisoners who were transferred—under President Bush's instructions—from CIA custody to Guantánamo Bay last September.

The issue is an especially sensitive one for the White House, and for Gonzales in particular. The aggressive interrogation techniques believed to have been used against Mohammed and other high-value Al Qaeda detainees were reviewed by White House and Justice Department lawyers and ultimately approved by Gonzales when he served as White House counsel. Among the techniques discussed early on by CIA and Pentagon officials—as well as White House and Justice Department lawyers—were sleep deprivation, stress positions,   waterboarding (in which a suspect is strapped to a board and doused with water in an effort to simulate drowning) and mock burials (in which a suspect is locked in a coffin and buried alive underground), according to former senior administration officials familiar with the matter.

Internal debates over such techniques began in earnest in the spring of 2002, following the capture of Abu Zubaydah, a top Al Qaeda commander. Some law-enforcement officials strongly protested the use of these techniques, expressing concern that they may violate a federal anti-torture statue and ultimately expose administration officials to criminal prosecutions, according to a former law-enforcement official directly involved in the discussions.

The debates produced "screaming" matches between FBI and CIA officers in the field. FBI Director Robert Mueller ultimately ordered his agents not to participate in the interrogations, the former official said.

The White House has never disclosed precisely which interrogation methods it finally approved. Despite repeated congressional requests, the administration has also refused to turn over key documents about CIA interrogations, including an August 2002 Justice Department memo that discussed specific techniques in light of a federal anti-torture law. But in one of his only public comments on the matter, President Bush strongly defended the techniques that were used against the detainees. "The [interrogation] procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful and necessary," Bush said in a statement in September 2006 when he announced the detainees were being transferred from secret CIA prisons to military custody.

But the new Democratic Congress may not see it that way, especially if they take testimony from FBI and Justice Department officials who opposed the techniques. And the fact that Gonzales himself personally signed off on the controversial methods makes the entire subject of detainee abuse especially risky for the White House.

"This was not a matter of a couple of people acting on their own initiative," said John Sifton, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, who has closely tracked the CIA interrogation issue. "This was a program authorized at the highest levels of the government."

At this stage, there are indications that Senate investigators and the CIA, at least, are seeking to avoid a confrontation over the detainee issue. Intelligence-community officials have indicated some willingness to cooperate with the probes; Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director, recently signaled that he was willing to grant all members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as some committee staffers, access to sensitive information about agency activities related to detainees, according to a congressional aide familiar with the discussions who declined to be identified talking about internal matters. Previously, said the official, the administration had tried to limit congressional access to such information to only the chairman and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Rockefeller, the panel's chairman, also has established a collegial working relationship with the panel's top Republican member, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri. When Republicans controlled the Senate, relations between Rockefeller and former Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts were strained, and Roberts, a close ally of the White House, largely blocked any serious investigation into the rendition, detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists. When Rockefeller complained, said a Hill staffer, Roberts accused him of lacking patriotism.

But the intelligence committee also operates largely in secret; information it gathers in the course of its probes is often kept confidential. Levin, the Armed Services chairman, could prove more of a threat to the administration. He is known as a bulldog investigator and has shown no compunction about demanding access to sensitive documents that other lawmakers have failed to obtain. Last week, Levin, along with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, attended the hearing on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The senators later released a joint statement stating the allegations of prisoner mistreatment "must be taken seriously and properly investigated."