A hearing on torture opened today on Capitol Hill, and itself launched into a protest about one witness who was gagged by the Pentagon.
Lt. Col. V. Stuart Couch, a former Guantanamo Bay prosecutor and appellate judge of the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, was scheduled to appear before a House subcommittee today to testify about the use of waterboarding and the legality of torture and other interrogation techniques.
In a March 31 Wall Street Journal story, Couch had said he had refused to prosecute a suspected terrorist because he believed the evidence had been tainted by torture.
The Journal revealed today that the Pentagon gagged Couch, preventing him from appearing at today's hearing.
"I find it outrageous that the administration has again chosen to stonewall an investigation into some very serious charges," Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said at today's hearing, "and the outrageous claim that torture - or whatever you want to call it - is legitimate and in our national interest.
"The issues before this subcommittee today could not be more serious," Nadler added. "And once again, when important questions need to be answered, we are told that no one has the right to question the administration.
"I am very tired of the secrecy and stonewalling by this administration."
Yet those who did appear before the subcommittee today left no doubt that the law is clear:
"Waterboarding is torture, period," Malcolm Wrightson Nance, a former Navy instructor of prisoner of war and terrorist hostage survival programs, said. "I believe that we must reject the use of the waterboard for prisoners and captives and cleanse this stain from our national honor."
The hearing comes as Senate leaders struggled to agree on the timing of a confirmation vote for attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey, who has refused to equate waterboarding with illegal torture, or to say that a president has no right to order its use.
The former retired judge is expected to win confirmation, but his nomination has sparked a bitter debate about the questionable legality of waterboarding and its authorization by the Bush administration on detainees.
The interrogation procedure, which makes the subject think he's drowning, is banned by domestic law and international treaties. It has reportedly been used by CIA interrogators on terrorism suspects, or by those to whom U.S. prisoners have been sent via rendition flights.
Mukasey's repeated refusal to testify that waterboarding is illegal torture cost him the votes of most Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, and there remains the threat of a filibuster when the vote comes to the full Senate.
He won the votes of two Democrats, Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, with an assurance that he would enforce any additional ban on the practice passed by Congress. Both houses are considering legislation to ban the procedure in all circumstances.
The debate shifted to the House Thursday, as the subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, convened a hearing on how the procedure is carried out and whether it meets the legal definition of torture.
As a former master training specialist in survival programs, Nance said that he underwent waterboarding as part of his training and that he personally led or was involved in using the procedure on hundreds of other trainees at the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School.
Nance described the experience as a "slow motion suffocation" that provides enough time for the subject to consider what's happening: "water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel(ing) your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs."
"The victim is drowning," Nance said in materials submitted with his testimony. The intent during training, he added, is to stop the process before death occurs.
Training sessions are where waterboarding belongs, not as part of efforts to gain intelligence information from foreign agents, said a second witness.
Such "coercive" interrogation techniques are not as effective as those that elicit cooperation, because false information is often elicited under harsher methods, said Col. Steven Kleinman, a senior intelligence officer and military interrogator for the U.S. Air Force Reserves.
"Tragically, many of these same tactics have migrated into the repertoire of interrogators seeking intelligence information," Kleinman said.
The costs of torture are beyond the physical or emotional pain caused to the subject, or to the damage to prosecution cases against suspects, where information obtained through torture must be thrown out. Nance testified that the United States has wholly failed in its ability to influence the hearts and minds of those in the Middle East because of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, and the invasion of Iraq.
He said many in the Middle East believe what the United States is doing comes out of pure malice, and that it will take "decades of very hard work" to turn that image around.
Kleinman and Nance both said that the reasons such coercive techniques have been used is that those in charge of interrogations are overruled by those higher up who, they say, are wrongly influenced by media representations of torture, like the TV show "24," and ignore the body of evidence that shows torture does not work.
"Technically they're doing a form of what we jokingly call 'Tom Clancy procedures,'" Nance said. "'It works in the book, it must work in real life.'"
Their comments were followed up by the subcommittee's ranking member, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who said he is against torture but that "sometimes we have to take measures to protect the innocent that we do not like.
"Severe interrogations are sometimes part of doing that," added Franks, who asked the panel if a ticking bomb scenario meant that such procedures could be legitimized.
Kleinman said such speculative questions only cloud the issue, and that coarser techniques only produce information that can't be trusted even if some of the information were valid. "I can't cherry pick" to determine if the subject was trustworthy, he said.
During the hearing, Kleinman was asked if a legal definition of torture was comparable to that of obscenity - you know it when you see it.
Kleinman said that if lawmakers were to witness the procedures enacted, "any discussion about the use of those methods would cease immediately."