WASHINGTON — Senior Bush administration officials held a series of meetings in the White House in 2002 and 2003 to discuss allowing the CIA to use harsh interrogation methods on Al Qaeda detainees, according to a written statement Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently provided to Senate investigators.
Rice's written response to investigators on the Senate Armed Services Committee marks the first time a high-ranking White House official has formally acknowledged the White House discussions, which led to the CIA's use of waterboarding and other coercive methods.
In particular, Rice wrote in the Sept. 12 statement that officials discussed simulated torture techniques that elite U.S. soldiers were subjected to as part of a survival training program, and that she and other officials were told that such methods "had been deemed not to cause significant physical or psychological harm."
Rice, who was serving as national security advisor at the time of the discussions, did not identify the source of that assertion. She was referring to a U.S. military program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, which at times has included waterboarding and other controversial methods subsequently employed by the CIA.
Rice's written responses were released Wednesday by the office of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the armed services committee, which has been investigating apparent interrogation abuses by U.S. military personnel.
"We've long believed they took place," Levin said in an interview, referring to the high-level meetings that Rice described. Her responses, however, provide what he described as "new, concrete evidence that they took place in the White House."
Levin questioned the assurance Rice said she and other officials obtained that SERE methods were safe. Levin said that contradicted statements from SERE experts who have pointed out that soldiers, unlike prisoners, can order the treatment stopped.
Rice did not disclose who at the meetings, but said that she had "asked Atty. Gen. [John] Ashcroft personally to review and confirm the legal advice" being prepared by the Department of Justice on the CIA's interrogation plans.
Other senior officials who routinely attended so-called principals meetings included then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Alberto R. Gonzales, then the presidential counsel; and David S. Addington, the vice president's counsel.
The committee submitted similar questionnaires to other Bush administration officials. But Levin said that they declined or refused to respond. Robert Wood, a State Department spokesman, said the department would not comment on correspondence between Rice and members of Congress.
Former CIA Director George J. Tenet wrote in a book last year that after the capture of Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in March 2002, the agency turned to the National Security Council for guidance on "how to handle him."
The National Security Council's role in shaping interrogation policy has been previously reported.
But Rice is the highest-ranking official to acknowledge the White House meetings, as well as their focus on the SERE program.
Rice said the purpose of the meetings was "to ensure that CIA's proposed interrogation program complied fully with U.S. legal obligations."