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May 14th, 2009
10:09 AM ET

Ex-insider: Harsh interrogation tactics were a mistake

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption= "Philip Zelikow summed up enhanced interrogation methods as a mistake during the first congressional hearings on alleged torture yesterday."]

A former State Department official and Bush White House insider summed up enhanced interrogation methods as a “mistake” during the first congressional hearings on alleged torture yesterday. He called the program a “collective failure” and said both parties share some of the blame.

Philip Zelikow is the man who made those claims. He was executive director of the 9/11 Commission and went on to become counselor to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department. He joined Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Thursday.

Kiran Chetry: You testified yesterday at that congressional hearing that, “The U.S. government adopted an unprecedented program of coolly calculated dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one. It was a collective failure.” When you talk about this as a collective failure, who do you think that much of the blame lies with?

Phillip Zelikow: I think this is one of the things we need to understand better. What happened is the country… a lot of the leaders of the country in both parties believed for a while that they needed to use these methods to protect the nation. They believed that because they thought there were no good alternatives and because they thought this was legal. I think both of those judgments were wrong. We know a lot about alternatives and, in fact, we've now proven that the alternatives work in our own record in Iraq and against al Qaeda worldwide. And I think we've also learned that the legal judgments were flawed too. So we need to understand how our – how our leaders, including the congressional leaders of both parties who were briefed, came to these conclusions that there was no alternative and that this was legal. This was a collective mistake.

Chetry: And the interesting thing about what you're saying is you believe they were largely ineffective. That's a position that Dick Cheney, the former vice president continues to defend. He's saying that these interrogation methods were effective. They didn't violate the law. He says they save lives and the Bush administration successfully defended the nation for 7 1/2 years since 9/11. What do you make of his claims?

Zelikow: Well, it's actually highly misleading. Because, of course, if you have the highest value al Qaeda captives in the world for years, anything you get from them is going to be of some use. And a lot of valuable information was obtained. The issue isn't did we get valuable information from these people. The issue is - were there other ways of getting the information that would have been as or more effective without having to subject them to physical abuse? In other words, it's a comparative evaluation. So when you just say well did we get good information reports from these people and then you get in an argument about that, that's a sucker's game. The real issue is to do the comparison and actually a lot of information was available at the time to do an honest comparison that wasn't used and since then, for example, we've been fighting al Qaeda in Iraq for years using methods that comply with international standards in a very effective fight.

Chetry: You had a front seat to some of this. You're a former senior aide to Condoleezza Rice. Why do you think then, if we have history on our side and that there are other methods to get information from people that we capture in the times of war, why do you think this was allowed to happen on our watch in the United States?

Zelikow: First, it’s because of the atmosphere after 9/11; full of crisis and alarms. I had some insight into that atmosphere at the time. And people were fearful about what might happen to the country. Second, you had an agency that came up and said, look, we can develop some new ways that America has never tried before that we think will work and for which there's no alternative. Third, the leaders were told these methods were uniquely effective. And fourth, the Attorney General told the nation's leaders that those methods were legal and several of those judgments, I'm afraid, were deeply flawed and we need to understand how that happens.

Chetry: You wrote in a memo in 2005 challenging the findings in these interrogation memos. You question the legality of the justification for some of the techniques and you said the memo was considered dead on arrival, DOA, and it was actually ordered destroyed. At that point, why didn't you resign or come out publicly about your concerns?

Zelikow: It wasn't just my concerns. I was being joined by my colleagues at the State Department, including Secretary Rice. We were all trying to change the policy and we didn't leave because we were changing the policy. The policies that we had been using for interrogation of prisoners were effectively dismantled by the end of 2005 and actually we brought all of the prisoners out of the black sites and to Guantanamo where they could be brought to justice in an announcement made by President Bush in September 2006. So the policy was being changed and moving us in a healthier direction.

Filed under: Terrorism
soundoff (209 Responses)
  1. Anonymous

    Oh give us time "realist" give us time... Seems like we are on a VERY slippery slope here.

    May 14, 2009 at 4:07 pm |
  2. karl

    Boy, you know a lot, Mathew Kilborn 12:07 pm. Sounds like you were there. Or maybe talked with the interrogators. The interrogator I listened to from Iraq, via a 20-min interview on CBC, was responsible for extracting the defining info that nailed the head of Al queida in Iraq. Neither he nor his team used torture. They used brains and creative engagement while others around him were trying torture. He got more from his prisoner in 20 minutes than the rest did in 10 hours. Clear your heads of vengeance and violence, people. Use your heads. Torture is NOT effective, extracts bad or minimal info, brings down the name of the U.S., and poses a danger to our servicemen. Bad on ALL fronts.

    May 14, 2009 at 4:04 pm |
  3. realist

    Hey Steve,

    Last I checked we don't BEHEAD our enemies. We are NOTHING like them, despite what ivory tower guilty liberals want to believe.

    May 14, 2009 at 4:00 pm |
  4. Anonymous

    Frankly just reading this comment thread is torture.

    May 14, 2009 at 4:00 pm |
  5. realist

    What a pathetic wussified nation we have become. They put a plastic baggy and some water over the face of the MASTERMIND OF 9/11.....Boo Hoo!!!! And shame on Pelosi and the dems who knew all about it suddenly changing tunes and playing dumb. What a disgrace.

    May 14, 2009 at 3:57 pm |
  6. Tony Spencer

    A ruin of a nation starts within. The notion we can conveniently justify tactics that have been clearly debated and made illegal by all nations with the signing of the Conventions, we're heading down a perilous road.

    We lose our moral standing in the world with trying to export democracy around the world – as if we have the right in the first place. Definitely, we can be a beacon of moral compass in this regard, but when we begin to rationalize – out of fear, torture or any other enhanced interrogation tactics, we lose.

    May 14, 2009 at 3:50 pm |
  7. D.L.

    what is the big deal? waterboarding terrorist? they would saw your head off slowley. not just yours but your children first before your eye's. Got no time to cry for them. there is one program that needs reformed and that is A.C.L.U. and the bleedin heart pup's that feel sorry for those who would brutally murder our loved one's needs too catch the next boat out of America. Good riddence too them.

    May 14, 2009 at 3:47 pm |
  8. Tina

    What is wrong with our country, our military should do whatever it takes to get the information we need to protect our country. I could care less what they do to the terrorist, if it helps protect our children DO IT!!!! I have two sons and both of them serve this country we all love. What are we suppose to do, ask them PRETTY PLEASE, Give us the information about your fellow terrorist who are out to get us. Are you MAD!!! Kill them before they kill us, if i am not mistaken they started this fight. Is there a such thing as fighting fair, hell no, you will get your ass kicked everytime.. I certainly hope people like those who are critizing the tactics our military used are not the ones protecting MY COUNTRY, MY KIDS!!!

    May 14, 2009 at 3:45 pm |
  9. heartlight3, Maui, HI

    Those who use the excuse that terrorists do not count under the Geneva Convention and other anti torture agreements that we are a party to because they are not uniformed soldiers, are you saying that they are not human beings? I thought human rights protections applied to human beings regardless of who they are. If we say we should torture because they do, how are we any better than they are. I think the issue is not one of what we did, its an issue of who we are. Are we a people who torture or are we not? Seems pretty straightforward.

    May 14, 2009 at 3:34 pm |
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