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.
But other experts and former U.S. intelligence officials said that those exclusions were unusual and that the Bush administration may have been particularly disinclined to disclose details to Powell -- even though as secretary of State he was in charge of U.S. diplomatic relations with countries including Thailand and Romania, identified in news reports as locations for secret CIA detention facilities.
“DOD and State seem to have been out of the loop until Sept. 16, 2003,” said John Radsan, a law professor who worked in the CIA general counsel’s office between 2002 and 2004. “That is a testament to the secrecy of the program. Did they not trust Rumsfeld and Powell?”
Other reports have said that at least the Pentagon was aware of the CIA program from the beginning.
In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rice said that Rumsfeld had participated in a 2002 review of the CIA program. In addition, a report released this week by the Armed Services Committee detailed the help the military provided the CIA in developing the techniques.
The CIA used waterboarding on suspected terrorists in 2002 and 2003. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, the CIA employed the interrogation technique on three presumed Al Qaeda members: Abu Zubaydah, Rahim Nashiri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Memos released last week showed that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and Mohammed, the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind, 183 times.
Despite high-level backing at the outset, the CIA repeatedly sought new assurances that the its activities were lawful and supported by senior officials in the Bush administration. In July 2003, Tenet took part in a meeting on the matter with then-Vice President Dick Cheney, Rice, Ashcroft and other top officials.
“According to CIA records, at the conclusion of that meeting, the principals reaffirmed that the CIA program was lawful and reflected administration policy,” the Senate report said.
But it appears from the Senate report that the CIA may have began to have second thoughts.
In May 2004, the agency’s inspector general conducted a review of the interrogation program, including the use of waterboarding.
The Senate report does not reveal the content of the review, but it sent the agency back to ask the Justice Department for an updated legal opinion that specifically addressed whether the interrogation techniques were allowable under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
In May 2005, the Justice Department upheld the use of waterboarding as legal because it did not cause “severe physical pain.” Despite that go-ahead, the CIA did not resume use of the technique.
In December 2005, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act. Sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), it was supposed to ban torture, including waterboarding.
But Radsan said that the timeline released by the committee Wednesday made clear that the Justice Department did not believe the new law banned the CIA’s harsh interrogation program.
“Even if John McCain thought he was cutting back on the CIA’s program, this timeline again makes clear that . . . nothing really changed for the CIA,” he said.
The Justice Department may have attempted an end-run around McCain’s next move to restrict the CIA’s program when Congress placed new limits on interrogations in the Military Commissions Act in 2006.
In a July 2007 opinion, the Justice Department concluded that the CIA’s harsh interrogations remained lawful and that Congress, by passing the military commissions law, had endorsed the program, according to the Senate report.
Paul Richter and Josh Meyer in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.