WASHINGTON — The CIA used an arsenal of severe interrogation techniques on imprisoned Al Qaeda suspects for nearly seven years without seeking a rigorous assessment of whether the methods were effective or necessary, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
The failure to conduct a comprehensive examination occurred despite calls to do so as early as 2003. That year, the agency's inspector general circulated drafts of a report that raised deep concerns about waterboarding and other methods, and recommended a study by outside experts on whether they worked.
That inspector general report described in broad terms the volume of intelligence that the interrogation program was producing, a point echoed in smaller studies later commissioned by then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss.
But neither the inspector general's report nor the other audits examined the effectiveness of interrogation techniques in detail or sought to scrutinize the assertions of CIA counter-terrorism officials that so-called enhanced methods were essential to the program's results. One report by a former government official -- not an interrogation expert -- was about 10 pages long and amounted to a glowing review of interrogation efforts.
"Nobody with expertise or experience in interrogation ever took a rigorous, systematic review of the various techniques -- enhanced or otherwise -- to see what resulted in the best information," said a senior U.S. intelligence official involved in overseeing the interrogation program.
As a result, there was never a determination of "what you could do without the use of enhanced techniques," said the official, who like others described internal discussions on condition of anonymity.
Former Bush administration officials said the failure to conduct such an examination was part of a broader reluctance to reassess decisions made shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Defense Department, Justice Department and CIA "all insisted on sticking with their original policies and were not open to revisiting them, even as the damage of these policies became apparent," said John B. Bellinger III, who was legal advisor to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, referring to burgeoning international outrage.
"We had gridlock," Bellinger said, calling the failure to consider other approaches "the greatest tragedy of the Bush administration's handling of detainee matters."
The limited resources spent examining whether the interrogation measures worked were in stark contrast to the energy the CIA devoted to collecting memos declaring the program legal.
Justice Department memos released this month show that the CIA repeatedly sought new opinions on the legality of depriving prisoners of sleep for up to seven days, throwing them against walls, forcing them into tiny boxes and subjecting them to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.
Whether those methods worked is facing independent scrutiny for the first time only now, three months after President Obama banned the CIA from using them.
As part of an executive order shutting down the CIA's secret prisons, the White House has set up a task force to examine the effectiveness of various interrogation approaches.
The Senate Intelligence Committee launched a similar review, and began combing through classified CIA cables that describe daily developments in the agency's interrogations of prisoners suspected of ties to Al Qaeda.
"To the best of our knowledge, such a review has not been done before," said a Senate aide involved in the investigation.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment on the reviews, saying their contents remained classified.
A U.S. intelligence official who defended CIA interrogation practices said that "productivity was an obvious and important measure of the program's effectiveness. The techniques themselves were not designed to elicit specific pieces of information, but to condition hardened terrorists to answer questions about Al Qaeda's plans and intentions.
"By that yardstick -- the generation of reporting that was true and useful, that led even to other captures -- it worked," the official said.
Obama has described the agency's activities as "a dark and painful chapter in our history," and senior members of his administration, including Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., have called the techniques torture.
Defenders of the program, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have accused Obama of dismantling a capability that was crucial to keeping the country safe. Cheney also has called for the release of classified documents that he said would show how effective the program was.
Officials said that Cheney was probably referring to memos drafted by leaders of the CIA's counter-terrorism center to serve as talking points on the program to use in briefings for members of Congress and White House officials.