Former Attorney General John Ashcroft testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing this morning about the Justice Department and the Guantánamo Bay detainees.
During his testimony, Ashcroft defended the use of some interrogation techniques that have come under fire, including waterboarding, as sometimes necessary for gathering information from “those who wish to do harm to America.”
“The reports I have heard, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, these techniques are very valuable,” Ashcroft said. “I was told the value of information gathered through the use of enhanced interrogation techniques was across the board more valuable than other information.”
He continued, “When you’re defending the country, you should have the full range of options open to you, and that carries over to interrogation.”
Despite the benefits that he says can come from using enhanced interrogation techniques, Ashcroft says it wasn't hard to withdraw Justice Department legal opinions that approved the use of harsh interrogation methods which critics say amount to torture.
"It became apparent in the further examination of those opinions, when made in another timeframe, that there were matters of concerns that were brought to my opinion,'' Ashcroft told lawmakers. "It was not a hard decision for me.''
Ashcroft, who was joined on the panel by Walter Dellinger, chair of the appellate practice at O'Melveny & Myers, and Benjamin Wittes, a fellow and research director in public law and governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said several times that at the time he was serving as attorney general, waterboarding was not designated as torture under the law.
He continued to say that President George Bush’s administration and the Department of Justice wanted to stay within the limits of the law, but within those limits the government should act as “aggressively as possible to keep Americans safe.”
Ashcroft says the Central Intelligence Agency should not be required to follow the Army field manual’s guidelines for interrogations because the nature of the two organizations are different, and the CIA may need latitude in their guidelines to allow for those differences.
Dellinger disagreed with Ashcroft sharply, telling members of the committee, “Having guidelines for the CIA that differ from the Army field manual on how to interrogate opens up a gap on what torture is, and what is acceptable.” He went on to say that even in a hypothetical situation where a bomb was hidden in Manhattan and the only way to find out where it was located would be to waterboard a suspect, the practice would be illegal.
“Of course the president should do whatever is necessary to address the situation, but then he must turn himself over to the law and accept punishment for any laws he might have broken. We ask greater sacrifices of our military every day,” Dellinger says.
Wittes says it is hard to determine whether so-called enhanced interrogation techniques are more effective than the rapport-building approach that is the generally accepted technique of federal interrogators.
“The best academic work I have seen that evaluated the data, came to the conclusion that we don’t know what works. Everybody believes that the technique that they used successfully is the best way,” Wittes says. “Unless you know a technique doesn’t work and you find yourself under enormous time pressure, you’re going to be under a great deal of pressure to ratchet your interrogations up.” Wittes did say, however, that it is “hard to reconcile” waterboarding with the torture statute.