WASHINGTON — For years, congressional Democrats dreamed of getting a crack at a man they saw as a key player behind the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods against detainees in the war on terrorism -- methods the critics say amount to torture.
On Thursday, they finally got their wish: Thickly bearded and glaring out through half-rimmed glasses, David S. Addington, a top aide to Vice President Cheney and alleged master-mind of the legal rationale for the harsh techniques, appeared before a House subcommittee.
But rather than eliciting new information or forcing damaging admissions from the long-sought witness, the hearing turned into an emotion-charged demonstration of the hostility and mutual disdain between the most liberal critics of the Bush administration's war policies and one of the architects of those policies.
For his part, Addington provided little specific information on his role in pressing for controversial interrogation tactics at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and with CIA prisoners. At the same time, he made it clear that he had played a central role in the matter.
And he lectured the committee on the continuing nature of the terrorist threat. "No American should think we're free, the war is over, Al Qaeda is not coming and they're not interested in getting us," Addington told the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. "Because that's wrong."
Yet when Democrats tried to pin him down on the moral and legal issues they considered crucial, Addington brushed them aside with barely concealed disdain.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who later characterized Addington's attitude as "smug," asked whether, if the interrogation program was found to be illegal, he would bear any responsibility.
"Is that a moral question or a legal question?" Addington asked, then said he bore no responsibility, legal or moral.
Was President Bush constrained by laws against torture? Addington refused to offer an opinion. Putting the question in extreme terms, Nadler asked Addington if torturing a detainee's child to get information would be legal.
"I'm not here to render legal advice to your committee," Addington shot back. "You do have attorneys of your own to give you legal advice."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) tried to press Addington on whether he had pushed interrogators at Guantanamo to utilize tougher techniques. When Addington said he did not recall, Wasserman Schultz said she found that "hard to fathom."
"Is there a question pending, ma'am?" Addington responded.
A Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week showed that William J. Haynes II, former top Pentagon lawyer, helped push harsh techniques down to interrogators working at the Guantanamo prison. Pentagon lawyers helped transform techniques used to train pilots to resist enemy interrogation into tools for American interrogators, the panel found. The methods may have violated prohibitions on torture or cruel treatment.
Addington acknowledged attending many meetings with Haynes and other top officials. He said he was briefed by John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who drafted many of the legal memos defending harsh techniques. He acknowledged multiple trips to Guantanamo and discussions with interrogators. He said he was familiar with the development of the CIA program. But he gave no details on what he said or did at such meetings.
Critics had hoped the hearing would show that, behind the scenes, Addington played a leading role in pushing for tough interrogation techniques. Addington said he was trying to maximize the president's options in dealing with terrorism and give protections to intelligence agents asked to do "tough things in wartime."
Perhaps the strangest exchange came at the end of the hearing. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) asked Addington whether waterboarding was discussed in meetings.
"I can't talk to you," Addington said. "Al Qaeda may watch these meetings."
Delahunt replied that he was sure they did. "I'm glad they finally have a chance to see you, Mr. Addington," Delahunt said. Without missing a beat, Addington answered, "I'm sure you're pleased."