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Ex-Bush Official Lobbied Against Torture

The Obama administration has been quick to disavow Bush-era torture policies and practices but reluctant to prosecute their masterminds. Many experts now say torture isn't even the best way -- or even a good way -- to get information from terror suspects.
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As a member of Condoleezza Rice's inner circle at the U.S. State Department, Philip Zelikow argued within the Bush administration that simulated drowning and other extreme interrogation techniques were illegal. Congress got a look at those internal battles when Zelikow testified Wednesday before a Senate committee.

Democrats are moving swiftly to hold hearings on recently released Bush administration legal opinions backing rough methods to pry information from terrorist detainees. The Obama administration has expressed reservations about public hearings that would look backward.

Also Wednesday, an administration official said President Barack Obama is seeking to block the release of hundreds of photos showing U.S. personnel abusing detainees on grounds that they would endanger American troops.

At the outset of the Senate hearing Wednesday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham took exception to a Democratic characterization of the proceedings as a look into Bush administration "lies" about extreme interrogation methods.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse had brought forth a theme centering on investigating "a body of lies." And Graham told Whitehouse he thought the hearing was "a political stunt."

While Democrats want to highlight the view that the former administration tortured prisoners, their tactic has been overshadowed by a controversy involving the leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans have challenged her comments that in a briefing six years ago, she was not told the harsh tactics were being used.

Zelikow learned of the then-classified Justice Department legal opinions in May 2005 and wrote a memo a few months later that contended the policies violated the U.S. Constitution.

More importantly, the memo was part of the internal arguments in the Bush administration that pitted the State Department against then-Vice President Dick Cheney and the Justice Department.

At times, Rice actively joined the dissent, a position that evolved from one of support after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Cheney, to this day, contends the interrogations prevented terrorist attacks.

Rice ignited a controversy last month when she told Stanford University students, "If it was authorized by the president it did not violate our obligations under the convention against torture." But in an appearance in Washington afterward, Rice said she really meant "the president (George W. Bush) said, 'I won't authorize anything that is illegal."

Zelikow argued in his 2005 memo that constitutional protections for defendants, and the Constitution's ban against cruel and unusual punishment, were violated by some of the interrogation tactics.

Writing last month for the Internet site of Foreign Policy Magazine, Zelikow said, "In other words, Americans in any town of this country could constitutionally be hung from the ceiling naked, sleep deprived, water-boarded, and all the rest - if the alleged national security justification was compelling."

Zelikow, who served as counselor to Rice at the State Department from February 2005 through January 2007, circulated his 2005 memo within the administration but had no authority on legal matters beyond the power of persuasion. He did not get far.

"My colleagues were entitled to ignore my views," he wrote. "They did more than that. The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo."

Several members of Congress have asked the Obama administration to search for a copy.

Zelikow, in an interview with The Associated Press, said that he told Rice that he was circulating a dissent.

"I would keep her informed about everything," he said. "I suspect I provided her a copy of the memo. In general, she understood the broad thrust of what we in the State Department were trying to do. She, at her level, was working and finding a way for the president to change the policies."

A former senior State Department official under Rice, who declined to be quoted by name in discussing the internal dispute, said the secretary held regular meetings on detainee issues with her small inner circle. In those meetings, he said, she supported efforts to close the detainee prison at Guantanamo, empty the secret detention sites and accept international standards for treatment of detainees.

In February 2007 Rice's legal adviser, John Bellinger III, wrote his own dissent. He concluded that some of the tactics violated international treaties including the Geneva Conventions prohibiting torture.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is seeking to block the immediate release of hundreds of photos showing U.S. personnel allegedly abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An Obama administration official said Wednesday that the president told his legal advisers last week that releasing the photos would endanger U.S. troops. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.

Mr. Obama wants the issue to go back to the courts, although federal appeals judges have ruled the photos could be released.