WASHINGTON — The partisan clash over controversial Bush administration interrogation methods intensified Wednesday at a Senate hearing, with the chairman saying a "truth commission" is all but inevitable.
A Republican colleague, however, suggested that Democrats were exploiting the controversy for political gain.
The Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, the first by Congress on the Bush administration's use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, also revealed some new details about how the harsh tactics were authorized and used.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI counter-terrorism agent and interrogator, testified that President George W. Bush and Justice Department lawyers were wrong when they said that waterboarding and other tactics used on one suspect provided key pieces of intelligence about Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Testifying from behind a screen to protect his identity, Soufan said the techniques, touted by the Bush administration as perhaps its most effective weapon against terrorism, were actually slow, ineffective and unreliable.
He said that he and a CIA agent gleaned much, if not all, of the crucial information from suspected Al Qaeda chieftain Abu Zubaydah before the coercive techniques were initiated, including information on the key role of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in the Sept. 11 attacks and the plot by alleged dirty bomber Jose Padilla.
Soufan, now a private security consultant, also said that outside contractors working for the CIA were the ones who used the coercive tactics, and that he and the CIA official working with him protested. The use of harsher methods by the contractors backfired, Soufan said, prompting Zubaydah to stop talking.
"I totally disagree with the assertion that there was a conflict between FBI and CIA. They were 100% supportive," Soufan said of the on-site CIA officials. "The chief psychologist objected to these techniques and left the location even before I did."
Asked whether Bush's public comments in 2006 about the effectiveness of the "enhanced" techniques were accurate, Soufan said, "My impression is that the president was told a half-truth."
Another witness, Philip D. Zelikow, who was a legal advisor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, provided new details about what he said were his efforts to aggressively protest the use of the techniques in meetings in the White House situation room and elsewhere.
In each case, he said, he was routinely blocked by more senior administration officials and ordered to destroy a lengthy legal memo in which he outlined his concerns about the "unsound, even unreasonable" legal justifications for the tactics.
Zelikow, now a history professor at the University of Virginia, called the interrogation campaign "an unprecedented program of coolly calculated dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information." It was, he added, "a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one" that should be investigated so the country can learn from it.
Other witnesses at the hearing also called for such an inquiry, as did several Democratic senators led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the subcommittee chairman and a former top federal prosecutor.
Whitehouse vowed more hearings on the legality of the interrogations, in tandem with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating whether the techniques worked and how they were used.
Whitehouse said mounting evidence suggests that administration officials used twisted legal interpretations to authorize the tactics. He also said he was concerned about information provided by Zelikow and others, suggesting that administration officials beat back internal opposition that was much stronger than has been disclosed.
"We were told that waterboarding was determined to be legal but were not told how badly the law was ignored, bastardized and manipulated by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel; nor were we told how furiously government and military lawyers rejected the defective OLC opinions," Whitehouse said.
He said that, as a member of both the judiciary and intelligence committees, he intended to investigate the role played by private CIA contractors in the interrogations.
"We were told we couldn't second-guess the brave CIA officers who did this, and now we hear that the program was led by private contractors with a profit motive and no real interrogation experience," Whitehouse said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, challenged Soufan and other witnesses to prove that the coercive interrogation techniques did not provide important information about Al Qaeda.
He suggested that hearings on the tactics and their legal foundations were "a political stunt" by the Democrats, and that their efforts to gather details of the classified program would dangerously undermine national security.
Some administration officials "made mistakes out of fear," and the government should learn from those mistakes but not prosecute or even investigate anyone for their role in them, Graham said.
After the hearing, Graham continued to protest the growing chorus of Democratic calls for investigations, noting that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) reportedly was briefed on at least some aspects of the classified program years ago.
"Should we have Nancy Pelosi here?" Graham asked. "Where does it end?"