By Jared Allen - 06/04/09 09:45 PM EDT
Republicans ignited a firestorm of controversy on Thursday by revealing some of what they had been told at a closed-door Intelligence Committee hearing on the interrogation of terrorism suspects.
Democrats immediately blasted the GOP lawmakers for publicly discussing classified information, while Republicans said Democrats are trying to hide the truth that enhanced interrogation of detainees is effective.
GOP members on the Intelligence Committee on Thursday told The Hill in on-the-record interviews that they were informed that the controversial methods have led to information that prevented terrorist attacks.
In the bowels of the Capitol Visitor Center, members of the panel gathered behind locked doors on Thursday morning to begin a series of hearings on the interrogation of terrorism suspects.
What began as a remarkably quiet and secretive hearing had, within a matter of hours, exploded into a political brawl over intelligence matters and national security.
Despite the weeks-long furor over how the CIA came to use enhanced interrogation techniques, and what members of Congress were told about their development and implementation, the committee’s first hearing on the issue during the 111th Congress almost came and went without notice. The hearing was announced publicly but was not open to the public.
According to Republicans, that was by design.
“Democrats weren’t sure what they were going to get,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), ranking Republican on the Intelligence panel, referring to information on the merits of enhanced interrogation techniques. “Now that they know what they’ve got, they don’t want to talk about it.”
The hearing was publicly described only as a subcommittee hearing on “Interrogations.” A committee spokeswoman would not comment on whether the development and use of controversial interrogation tactics were discussed.
But Republicans on the panel said that not only did the use of interrogation techniques come up Thursday, but that the data shared about those techniques proved they had led to valuable information that in some instances prevented terrorist attacks.
“I think the people who were at the hearing, in my opinion, clearly indicated that the enhanced interrogation techniques worked,” Hoekstra said.
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), a member of the subcommittee who attended the hearing, concurred with Hoekstra.
“The hearing did address the enhanced interrogation techniques that have been much in the news lately,” Kline said, noting that he was intentionally choosing his words carefully in observance of the committee rules and the nature of the information presented.
“Based on what I heard and the documents I have seen, I came away with a very clear impression that we did gather information that did disrupt terrorist plots,” Kline said.
Neither Hoekstra nor Kline revealed details about the specifics of what they were told Thursday or the identity of the briefers.
Democrats lambasted their Republican counterparts for discussing the information that was provided behind locked doors.
“I am absolutely shocked that members of the Intelligence committee who attended a closed-door hearing … then walked out that hearing — early, by the way — and characterized anything that happened in that hearing,” said Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “My understanding is that’s a violation of the rules. It may be more than that.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said, “Members on both sides need to watch what they say.”
Both Schakowsky and Reyes accused GOP members of playing politics with national security.
“I think they are playing a very dangerous game when it comes to the discussion of matters that were sensitive enough to be part of a closed hearing,” Schakowsky said.
Asked about the validity of Republican contentions that information shared in Thursday’s hearing showed the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques, Schakowsky said she could not comment on what was discussed at a closed hearing.
Reyes responded by saying he did not attend the entire hearing.
“I wasn’t at the whole hearing,” Reyes said. “As the chairman my view is we need to get the facts about how the enhanced interrogation techniques came about, not just the results.”
That task has become complicated for Democrats, as has the task of proving any effectiveness, or not, of waterboarding and other similar methods of interrogation.
While Democrats, led by President Obama, have firmly labeled those methods torture, cast doubt on their utility and called for their abolition, Republicans, led by former Vice President Cheney, have consistently said they have worked.
Cheney has called on Obama to declassify CIA information that he says will show that enhanced interrogation techniques have made the U.S. safer.
Since Obama’s release of the Bush administration legal memos justifying the use of many of those enhanced interrogation techniques, Democrats have been on the defensive on an issue they hoped would place them on the political and moral high ground.
And at the center of the storm has been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Pelosi has been dogged for weeks about how much she was told by CIA officials about the development and use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques.
Pelosi last month accused the CIA of lying to Congress about its treatment of suspected terrorists and detainees.
Republican leaders have since demanded that Pelosi either back up those claims or apologize.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday pressed the issue.
On Thursday Pelosi was asked if she was still receiving intelligence briefings.
“I’ve said what I’m going to say on that subject,” she immediately replied.
Before the reporter could repeat the question, Pelosi answered, “Yes, I am. Yes, I am.”
As part of their line of attack, Republicans have called not just for open hearings on interrogations, but for an inquiry in which Pelosi would testify about what she was told by the CIA, as well as for the release of still-classified documents they say will back up their claims that waterboarding and other methods have yielded valuable intelligence.
“We’ve asked for hearings,” Hoekstra said. “Clearly the chairman and I are of different thinking on this. But I think a whole lot of questions would be answered if those materials would be released.”
Reyes contended that the committee is acting appropriately.
“We want to know everything there is to know about interrogation, wherever that leads us,” Reyes said. “This was just the first hearing.”
“They can talk all they want and they can continue to make a political issue out of it,” he said of Republicans. “We will continue to do our work.”