When Philip Zelikow, the former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, testifies before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Wednesday about controversial legal opinions issued by the Bush-era Justice Department, he'll be wading into a political maelstrom. Former Bush administration and CIA officials have accused Congressional Democrats of hypocrisy for calling for investigations of the interrogations policies, saying that some, including now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were briefed on the techniques employed and approved them.
Zelikow, who revealed last month on ForeignPolicy.com that the Bush White House tried to destroy all copies of a 2006 memo he wrote opposing the policies, has generally sought to avoid the political spectacle, but describes the program as a collective failure. He is calling for an independent commission to investigate what happened.
"I think the record will show as CIA wants it to be known that quite a number of people from both parties were aware of this program, and endorsed it over a period of years," Zelikow told The Cable on the eve of his still-embargoed testimony (.pdf) Tuesday. "Goodness knows, this was a problem for the people inside" like himself "who objected to the program. We were constantly told, 'We briefed XYZ and they had no problem with that.'"
But Zelikow said he is not trying to point fingers. "My point of view on this is fairly straightforward," he said. "This is now a historical problem. Our country quit doing this some time ago. I think that a lot of people agree with me in judging that this program was a mistake - a pretty big mistake. It was a collective failure. A lot of people in both parties of this country convinced themselves for years that we needed a program like this to protect America.
"And so one of the reasons I support some kind of inquiry is to comprehend why so many people believed that a program like this was a good idea - since we now believe it was a mistake," he continued. "So we can learn from the mistake. When there is this kind of collective failure, we need to learn from what happened."
Zelikow supports the kind of outside commission being championed by Senate Judiciary committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), one similar to the independent 9/11 commission that Zelikow directed.
"It would be so much easier if it had been a cabal of six people who did this," Zelikow continued. "But when you realize it had broader consensus, all the more reason to comprehend what happened to inoculate ourselves for the next time. Because there will be a next time."
"That way you don't have a situation where [former ranking Senate Intelligence committee member] Jay Rockefeller and Nancy Pelosi are seen as being hypocrites. Turn over the inquiry to others. That is the way they can neatly address this argument, because they won't be the ones conducting the inquiry."
"That is why in my testimony, I say that the reason I thought a lot of otherwise well-meaning people endorsed a program like this [is that] they were told in the atmosphere that prevailed after 9/11 that there were no alternatives. They were told the program is legal."
Asked if the program of enhanced interrogation techniques came more from the CIA or the White House, Zelikow said the CIA, but Bush White House officials played an enabling role.
Regarding his 2006 memo, Zelikow said, "I tried to raise consciousness that there was a massive potential problem here. 'Maybe we should do something.' And the answer to that was silence. 'We don't want to discuss this. We don't want to reassure you. We prefer to ignore you raised this.' I worked hard on this memo. I wish people had answered to tell me why we [dissenters] were so wrong. But their preference was, 'Your intervention is so frivolous and out of school that it doesn't deserve a response.' That's too bad."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who chairs the subcommittee presiding over Wednesday's hearing, has sought to obtain a copy of Zelikow's memo from the State Department. More than one copy of the February 2006 memo has apparently been located; one is in the process of being declassified, a committee source said on condition of anonymity.
"I hope what America will learn [from the hearing] is that the facts that were alleged in the torture memos are very likely not true," Whitehouse told MSNBC Tuesday. "The legal theories were contested even by Bush administration lawyers who weren't in on the fix, and a little bit about what the consequences are for lawyers who commit professional malfeasance."
Asked why Whitehouse had sought to take a leading role and hold hearings on the issue, an aide noted that the Rhode Island senator grew up the son of a Foreign Service officer family in Laos and Cambodia around the time of the Vietnam war, and has thought a lot from those experiences about America's role in the world and how it's perceived.
UPDATE: Zelikow's testimony is available here. Two previously unreleased annexes were submitted with it but not yet published on the Judiciary Committee site: a July 2005 unclassified memo (.pdf), "Detainees: the need for a stronger framework," prepared by Zelikow and former State Department legal advisor John Bellinger; and a June 2005 memeorandum prepared by then acting deputy defense secretary Gordon England and Zelikow, "Elements of possible initiative" (.pdf). The Federation of American Scientists' Steve Aftergood explains their importance.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.