WASHINGTON – CIA Director Michael Hayden, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors Tuesday, failed to answer central questions about the destruction of secret videotapes showing harsh interrogation of terror suspects, the panel's chairman said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the committee's 90-minute session with Hayden "a useful and not yet complete hearing" and vowed the committee would get to the bottom of the matter. Among lingering questions: Who authorized destruction of the tapes, and why Congress wasn't told about it?
Hayden told reporters afterward that he had "a chance to lay out the narrative, the history of why the tapes were destroyed" and the process that led to that decision. But since the tapes were made under one of his predecessors, George Tenet, and destroyed under another, Porter Goss, he wasn't able to completely answer all questions, he said.
"Other people in the agency know about this far better than I," Hayden said, and promised the committee he would make those witnesses available.
A similar session is set for Wednesday, when Hayden appears before the panel's House counterpart.
Tuesday's hearing came as a former CIA agent who was part of the interrogation team went public with his account, saying the waterboarding of a top al-Qaida figure was approved at the top levels of the U.S. government.
According to the former agent, waterboarding of terror suspect Abu Zubaydah got him to talk in less than 35 seconds. The technique, which critics say is torture, probably disrupted "dozens" of planned al-Qaida attacks, said John Kiriakou, a leader of the team that captured Abu Zubaydah, a major al-Qaida figure.
Kiriakou did not explain how he knew who approved the interrogation technique but said such approval comes from top officials. He did not witness or participate in the waterboarding, he said.
"This isn't something done willy nilly. This isn't something where an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he's going to carry out an enhanced technique on a prisoner," he said Tuesday in a round of television news show appearances. "This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and Justice Department."
At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said the CIA interrogation program approved by the president is safe, tough, effective and legal.
"It's no secret that the president approved a lawful program in order to interrogate hardened terrorists," Perino said. "We do not torture. We also know that this program has saved lives by disrupting terrorist attacks."
Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value detainee taken by the CIA in 2002, is now being held with other detainees at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He told his interrogators about alleged 9/11 accomplice Ramzi Binalshibh, and the two men's confessions also led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whom the U.S. government said was the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
As to the CIA videotapes, President Bush said he didn't know about the tapes or their destruction until last week. "My first recollection of whether the tapes existed or whether they were destroyed was when Michael Hayden briefed me," Bush said in an interview Tuesday with ABC News. "There's a preliminary inquiry going on and I think you'll find that a lot more data, facts will be coming out," the president said. "That's good. It will be interesting to know what the true facts are."
Waterboarding is a harsh interrogation technique that involves strapping down a prisoner, covering his mouth with plastic or cloth and pouring water over his face. The prisoner quickly begins to inhale water, causing the sensation of drowning.
The CIA is known to have waterboarded three prisoners — Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheik Muhammed, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, whom the U.S. government says coordinated the 2002 attack on the USS Cole. The CIA has not used the technique since 2003, according to a government official familiar with the program. Hayden prohibited waterboarding in 2006. The U.S. military outlawed it the same year.
Hayden told CIA employees last week that the CIA taped the interrogations of two alleged terrorists in 2002. He said the harsh questioning was carried out only after being "reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice and by other elements of the Executive Branch." Hayden said Congress was notified in 2003 both of the tapes' existence and the agency's intent to destroy them.
The CIA destroyed the tapes in November of 2005. Exactly when Congress was notified of that and in what detail is in dispute.
The Justice Department and CIA's independent internal watchdog have begun a preliminary inquiry into the destruction of the tapes. The review will determine whether a full investigation is warranted, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said.
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein, who is heading the inquiry, "is going to go where the facts lead him," Mukasey said at a news conference. "If the law leads him someplace we are going to go there too."
Mukasey told reporters he still has not determined whether waterboarding is torture, an issue that jeopardized his confirmation by the Senate last month. He said he is reviewing the Bush administration's legal opinions that underpin the CIA interrogation and detention program to determine if they are sound, and if so, whether the CIA's interrogation program conforms with them.
A former head of the military's intelligence agency said Tuesday that waterboarding is torture.
"The technique of having someone think he's drowning, his life is in danger? In my book that's torture," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Harry Soyster, who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1988 to September 1991. "You are using a technique that can kill someone."