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5 Questions for Alberto Gonzales on CIA Tactics

Image: Officials Discuss Florida Anti-Terrorism Raid
File photo of US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales holding a news conference at the Department of Justice June 23, 2006 in Washington, DC. Gonzales answered questions related to the arrest of seven men in Miami, Florida, on charges of providing material support to what they thought was al-Qaeda and planning attacks on the scale of the attacks on 9/11. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Alberto Gonzales was the first Hispanic U.S. attorney general in history and endured some of the fallout over the CIA's interrogation tactics while serving in the administration of former President George W. Bush as legal counsel to the president and then as the attorney general. A 2002 memo he wrote arguing the war on terror rendered obsolete and quaint some parts of the Geneva Convention's limits on questioning of enemy prisoners drew him heavy criticism. Gonzales, now Dean and professor of law at Belmont University College of Law, spoke to NBC News Tuesday about the Senate Intelligence Committee's recently released CIA report, which he said he is still reading. Here is a condensed version of the interview:

NBC: What is your opinion of the report's findings, in general, concerning the CIA's interrogation tactics?

Gonzales:My initial reaction was disappointment, disappointment about the report generally because I don't know how much of it is true. Since it was signed only by Democrats, I don't know whether information that was in the report was placed out of context. I don't know what omissions of fact and evidence exists. And obviously, we know key participants, key witnesses, key players in this weren't even interviewed and for that reason, I think the report is terribly flawed ... Many of these reports document what happened. They don't necessarily tell us why it happened and they don't necessarily tell us what was in the minds of these people as these events were unfolding and what was the intent - and intent in my judgment is very, very important.

NBC: Do you think the report should have been released at all?

Gonzales: Given the doubts I have about its accuracy, no. I think quite honestly our enemies, critics of the United States are going to use the report to bash the United States and give themselves a license to do other atrocities. Privately, they are probably thinking, 'Is this all the United States is doing to people they capture?' They're probably laughing.

NBC: What about the comments of Sen. John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war. He basically has said that these kinds of tactics are not us, are not America?

Gonzales: Well I have a great deal of respect for Sen. McCain, obviously, and I think when he talks about this, he speaks with a level of authority we should all listen to, quite honestly.

NBC: Former Vice President Dick Cheney said he would do it again. How about you, would you make the same decisions in terms of the legal opinions you gave at the time and approved?

Gonzales: The legal opinions were delivered under (Former Attorney General John) Ashcroft and (Deputy Attorney General) Jay Bybee and John Yoo at the office of legal counsel. People have jumped to the conclusion that I authored all these opinions and I'm solely responsible, but of course three different attorneys general approved of these techniques: general Ashcroft, myself and general Mukasey, and there were numerous lawyers that signed off on these techniques ...

The United States entered against this (Geneva) convention against torture during the Reagan administration. Before then there was no law outlawing torture. The convention ... required every country who entered into the treaty to pass a law outlawing torture, which is what the United States did. What people don't understand is the convention against torture prohibits two levels of conduct, one is torture, the other is a level of conduct called "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment," something below torture, something not as bad as torture. The treaty did not require any country to outlaw it, so you don't have a domestic criminal statute that makes it unlawful to engage in cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment ... In the analysis of whether techniques like waterboarding, nudity, sleep deprivation, we weren't looking to see whether or not it was cruel - though you could sort of make an argument that it was - we weren't looking to see if it was inhumane ... we weren't looking to see whether it was degrading ... we were asked to determine whether or not, did it rise to the level of torture, an even higher standard ... Many people lose that distinction ... if it is only cruel, then it doesn't rise to the level of torture and it doesn't violate the torture statute ... If it's cruel, inhumane and degrading, it doesn't violate our domestic law. It may violate an international law.

When the Senate ratified the treaty, they made a reservation and told the world, "We're going to interpret the words 'cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.' It's only going to apply if it is conduct that shocks the conscience, depending on the totality of the circumstances" ... Does waterboarding of a high-value detainee who we believe has knowledge of an impending attack, does that shock the conscience given the totality of the circumstances? I could make the argument that it does not.

NBC: The report said the tactics did not lead to "imminent threat" intelligence. Do you agree?

Gonzales: I know (former CIA directors) George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, they all testified under oath that the tactics were effective and they did help disrupt a plot and save American lives. I have a personal, painful experience where they (critics) reached unsupported conclusions and until I have more supportive evidence I have to go with what they said. What this says is they lied under oath and I don't think they did.

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