Believe it or Not: Phoenix Program’s Rep. Simmons Says, “the CIA doesn’t use torture!”

Simmons says CIA doesn't use torture,
but defends vote on bill protecting agents

By Don Michak, Journal Inquirer

U.S. Rep. Robert R. Simmons, R-2nd District, says he's "not convinced" that the CIA is torturing terror suspects, and that when he worked for the spy agency's controversial "Phoenix" program during the Vietnam war he didn't need to resort to torture.

"In my experience, torture doesn't work," the three-term incumbent told the Journal Inquirer last week." And in the training that our military personnel receive, and in the training that the CIA receives, we do not focus on or condone or employ those practices. And that's been the case for a long period of time."

Simmons' comments came as he defended his vote last month approving the so-called detainee bill that permits aggressive interrogation of suspected "enemy combatants" in secret prisons.

The measure also extends special protection to CIA officers from possible prosecution or lawsuits stemming from their use of techniques like "water-boarding," in which the person being interrogated is made to feel like he is drowning, as well as extended sleep deprivation and hypothermia.

Simmons responded to questions about the bill first by noting that he was one of only two current members of Congress "who have worked as interrogators or who have done interrogations," saying the other lawmaker was another former CIA operative, Rep. Joe Schwartz of Michigan, a one-term Republican defeated in his party's primary in August.

Simmons then recounted his experience as a CIA officer in Tuy Hoa, a provincial capital in the former South Vietnam, where he reportedly assisted a counterpart from the South Vietnamese special police in identifying civilians in the "Viet Cong infrastructure" and penetrating their organization with double agents.

He was describing part of a counter-insurgency program code named "Phoenix," under which Special Forces were dispatched to capture or assassinate Vietnamese believed to be working with the Vietcong. U.S. personnel relied on the South Vietnamese Army and village chiefs to identify targets.

After much-publicized hearings in 1971, several members of Congress who had traveled to Vietnam said they believed torture was "a regularly accepted part of interrogation" at centers like the one in Tuy Hoa and that U.S. military and civilian personnel had participated for years in "the deliberate denial of due process of law to thousands of people held in secret interrogation centers built with U.S. dollars."

Simmons denied any involvement in physical torture.

"In my experiences with the Province Interrogation Center in the Phu Yen province and Tuy Hoa, back in 1970-72, we did not use 'water-boarding,"' he said. "We did not use any kind of physical torture to encourage cooperation.

"Now, the people that we took into the Province Interrogation Center were provided to use by the South Vietnamese government who were held by the South Vietnamese government," he added. "And the South Vietnamese government would often use standards that are different from our standards. And part of our success was that we could persuade the people who were under our control that cooperation would in fact allow them to stay for a longer period of time under our custody, which was much more favorable to them than being under the custody of the South Vietnamese government.

"Now the challenge for us today is in dealing with a somewhat different situation," he continued. "Do we abandon those principles or not? I do not support abandoning those principles, which were appropriate. But in an effort to take this out of the domain of executive orders and to put it in the domain of legislation, we have worked on and attempted to craft a piece of legislation that incorporates those principles but at the same time recognizes that we need a new kind of law for a new kind of war. We are not involved in a conflict between sovereign states and we're not involved in traditional law enforcement issues. I think we've come up with an adequate compromise and I think we can test that compromise in the out-years as we move forward."

Asked if by voting to approve a bill that protected government operatives who may use torture techniques he was indirectly condoning such tactics, Simmons said he was not.

"I'm not convinced these people are using them," he said. "When I worked for the CIA as a case officer, I was essentially told that if my operational activities placed me at risk, I would be protected by my organization. Now working overseas, abroad, in a foreign environment, a hostile environment, is risky. And when you take those risks, you like to think your parent organization will take care of you.'"

Simmons cited a report on U.S. intelligence agencies prepared by a national commission prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that he said had concluded that government agents "operating in the counterterrorism domain were not protected from liability lawsuits.

"I don't think that providing our CIA officers, our FBI officers, engaged in these activities from liability lawsuits is condoning behavior," he said. "I don't see it that way. I think it's really a question of extending to them some protection that we extend to other public officials and other areas."

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