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Interrogation tactics got the OK early on

A Senate report says Bush administration officials signed off on CIA methods without the input of key agencies.

April 23, 2009|Greg Miller and Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — Senior Bush administration officials signed off on the CIA's use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation measures in July 2002 after a series of secret meetings that apparently excluded the State and Defense departments, according to information released Wednesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Senate report indicated that then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and other officials gave the CIA's interrogation plan political backing even before the methods had been approved by the Justice Department.

The document also revealed the existence of a series of Justice Department memos written in 2006 and 2007 that in some cases undermined congressional efforts to rein in the CIA's interrogation authorities -- memos that were excluded from the batch released by the Obama administration last week.

The Senate document represents the most complete chronology to date of the Bush administration's embrace of simulated drowning and other interrogation methods now widely denounced as torture.

In listing the senior Bush administration officials intimately involved in the early deliberations on CIA interrogations, the report underscored how any effort to hold architects of the program accountable was likely to extend beyond Justice Department legal advisors and into the highest reaches of the government.

It also raised questions about whether the Bush administration sought to keep details of the CIA program away from high-level officials -- particularly former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- who were perceived as potential opponents of the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

The Senate report is a summary of documents that the committee obtained from the CIA. Its declassification is likely to add momentum to calls for an independent inquiry and put pressure on President Obama to release even more previously classified records.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the former chairman of the Intelligence Committee who had pushed for the panel's report to be declassified, said the document demonstrated how deeply involved the Bush White House was in designing the interrogation program.

"The records of the CIA demonstrate that the lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel did not operate in a vacuum," Rockefeller said in a statement. That office is the Justice Department entity that issued many of the key opinions endorsing the CIA's techniques. "The then-vice president and the national security advisor are at the center of these discussions."

While the Senate report indicated then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was not involved in the earliest discussions, other records from the Bush administration suggest he was.

The Senate report traced those who participated in a series of high-level meetings beginning in mid-May 2002, the first time the CIA proposed the use of waterboarding to White House principals.

It identified Rice as the official "who advised that the CIA could proceed with its interrogation of Abu Zubaydah" -- the first suspected high-level Al Qaeda operative captured by the agency and the first to be subjected to waterboarding and other harsh methods. That message was sent on July 17, 2002, according to the document, pinpointing for the first time the date that the Bush administration formally backed the CIA's aggressive plan.

The report noted that Rice's endorsement, conveyed to then-CIA Director George J. Tenet, was "subject to a determination of legality by the OLC." That legal sign-off came one week later, when the CIA was verbally informed that Ashcroft and the Office of Legal Counsel had concluded the agency's proposed techniques -- including waterboarding -- were lawful.

One former Bush administration official familiar with the interrogation discussions said in an interview that the CIA program was presented as the only way to prevent further terrorist attacks on the United States. Both the intelligence director and top Justice Department officials recommended the White House approve the program, said the official, who spoke about the secret meetings on condition of anonymity.

"The program was developed by the CIA, and the director of central intelligence -- who was the president's primary foreign intelligence advisor -- recommended the program to the White House as necessary, effective and [one] for which there was no alternative," the official said.

The verbal assurances from members of President Bush's National Security Council were backed up the following month in a lengthy memo from the Office of Legal Counsel, one of the documents that Obama released last week.

It wasn't until September 2003 that the CIA briefed Powell and Rumsfeld on the interrogation program, the Senate report said. Legal experts said the delay might have been because neither the State nor Defense departments was involved in the program, which was among the most secret in CIA history.

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