John Rizzo, left, former acting general counsel for the CIA, says in his… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
WASHINGTON — The decision to waterboard Al Qaeda prisoners in 2002 was made by CIA managers and government lawyers, and was not initially approved by President George W. Bush, according to a new account by a former CIA lawyer that revises the history of America's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
A memoir by John Rizzo, longtime acting general counsel for the CIA, says Bush was not initially informed about the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques that critics later called torture, despite Bush's claim to the contrary in his 2010 book.
Bush later signed on, and Rizzo repeats previous CIA claims that key members of Congress, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), were fully briefed on what the CIA called "enhanced interrogation techniques" and did not object, something Pelosi has denied.
In "Company Man," Rizzo writes that the CIA also sought permission for another technique "so gruesome that the Justice Department later stopped short of approving it" and it was not used. CIA censors prohibited him from describing the technique, but other officials say it was mock live burial of prisoners.
Rizzo's account comes as the Senate Intelligence Committee is considering the release of a classified report by Democrats that argues the interrogations were not useful and that CIA managers lied about their effectiveness. The CIA and Republicans on the committee have challenged the report's accuracy.
CIA officers first used coercive methods against Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda operative who was arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 and taken to a then-secret CIA prison in Thailand. CIA officers proposed nine techniques, including waterboarding, in which water is poured over someone's face to induce the sensation of drowning. Also on the list were cramped confinement, stress positions and the "insult slap."
"Some of the techniques they described sounded like something out of a Three Stooges slapstick routine," Rizzo writes. "Others sounded sadistic and terrifying."
Abu Zubaydah, who remains in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was one of three detainees in CIA custody who was subjected to waterboarding in 2002 and 2003.
Rizzo said he could have stopped the CIA from waterboarding and other harsh practices. But he said he sought and won Justice Department approval because he was convinced they were necessary to thwart Al Qaeda.
His involvement led key senators to block his nomination by Bush in 2007 to be the CIA's general counsel. He retired in 2009 after 33 years with the agency.
Rizzo defended his actions Monday in an interview at his Washington law firm, Steptoe and Johnson.
"Why would the agency, why would I, continue a program for six years that was increasingly turning toxic politically, that was exposing people at the agency to professional risk and opprobrium, if it wasn't doing any good?" he asked.
In his memoir, "Decision Points," Bush wrote that then-CIA Director George Tenet gave him a list of interrogation techniques to be used on Abu Zubaydah in 2002 and that he vetoed two of them. Bush also recalled Tenet asking for permission to use harsh techniques on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, after his capture in March 2003. " 'Damn right,' I said," Bush wrote.
"All of this was news to me," Rizzo writes. Bill Harlow, a former spokesman for Tenet, said Monday that Tenet has no recollection of briefing Bush on the interrogation techniques, but that Bush's then-national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, may have done so.
Freddy Ford, a spokesman for the former president, declined to comment Monday.