Congressional leaders were briefed repeatedly on the CIA’s use of severe interrogation methods on Al Qaeda suspects, according to new information released by the Obama administration Thursday that appears to contradict the assertions of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The records describe dozens of congressional briefings about CIA decisions that since have emerged as major sources of controversy -- including the agency’s use of waterboarding and its destruction of videotapes of interrogation sessions.
A chart compiled by the CIA indicates that Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was briefed on Sept. 4, 2002, on the agency’s interrogation of alleged Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, and that the session covered “the particular [enhanced interrogation techniques] that had been employed.” The chart does not list the specific methods covered during the briefing. But during the preceding month, the CIA had used the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding on Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times, according to a Justice Department memo released last month.
Pelosi has acknowledged being briefed on the CIA’s interrogation program, but said she was told only about methods the agency was considering, not about techniques it had actually employed.
As recently as a week ago, Pelosi said, “We were not -- I repeat were not -- told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used.”
Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi, disputed the CIA’s account. “As this document shows, the speaker was briefed only once, in September 2002,” he said Thursday. “The briefers described these techniques, said they were legal, but said that waterboarding had not been used.”
The CIA declined to comment on why the chart does not make it clear whether waterboarding was covered in the Pelosi briefing. But a federal official familiar with the list indicated that the agency’s records may not have been that specific. “The descriptions don’t go beyond what the records themselves say,” said the official, who requested anonymity when discussing intelligence matters.
Republican congressional officials familiar with the document and other still-classified records on congressional briefings said it would have been negligent for CIA briefers to fail to mention the use of waterboarding after Abu Zubaydah had been subjected to the method so extensively.
Overall, the chart describes 40 briefings over a seven-year period during which CIA and other U.S. intelligence officials described the agency’s interrogation program to senior lawmakers.
The records were requested by congressional Republicans, who have accused Democrats on Capitol Hill of hypocrisy for expressing outrage in recent weeks over the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation methods after the release of Justice Department memos describing them in detail.
Porter J. Goss, former House Republican and former CIA director, wrote last month in an opinion piece that he was “slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as ‘waterboarding’ were never mentioned.” Goss described the lawmakers’ claims as “a disturbing epidemic of amnesia.”
Goss attended the September 2002 briefing with Pelosi in what the records indicate was the first time congressional officials were told about the so-called enhanced interrogation program. At the time, Goss was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and Pelosi was the panel’s ranking Democrat.
In other entries on the chart, waterboarding is specifically mentioned. In February 2003, for example, the records indicate that Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) were told about the agency’s interrogation methods “in considerable detail,” including “how the waterboard was used.” Roberts was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, and Rockefeller was ranking Democrat. In recent years, Rockefeller has been an outspoken critic of the CIA’s interrogation program.
“Sen. Rockefeller was briefed but was not presented with the full picture, nor was he told critical information that would have cast significant doubt on the program’s legality and effectiveness,” said Jamie Smith, a Rockefeller spokeswoman. “With more information coming to light in 2004, Sen. Rockefeller became increasingly concerned about the program, and in early 2005 he launched a full-scale effort to investigate. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s review is ongoing, and he believes it is critically important that there be a full accounting of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies.”
The records indicate that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) and other lawmakers were told in early 2003 that the CIA intended to destroy videotapes of interrogation sessions. Harman, then the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has said that she sent a letter to the agency at the time warning that doing so was a “bad idea.” The tapes were destroyed in 2005, after the scandal over detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Although the records describe early briefings on the CIA program, they also indicate that the operation was shielded from the vast majority of lawmakers for years. It wasn’t until September 2006, four years after Goss and Pelosi initially were briefed, that the agency’s interrogation program was described to the full House and Senate intelligence committees.
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.