Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bush aides tied to talks on CIA interrogations

" ... the CIA began using harsh interrogation methods weeks before the Justice Department formally authorized the interrogation program in a secret memo dated Aug. 1, 2002. ... "

By Mark Mazzetti
International Herald Tribune
September 25, 2008

WASHINGTON: Senior White House officials played a central role in deliberations in the spring of 2002 about whether the Central Intelligence Agency could legally use harsh interrogation techniques while questioning an operative of Al Qaeda, Abu Zubaydah, according to newly released documents.

In meetings during that period, the officials debated specific interrogation methods that the CIA had proposed to use on Qaeda operatives held at secret prisons overseas, the documents show.

The meetings were led by Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, and attended by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other top administration officials.

The documents provide new details about the still-murky early months of the CIA's detention program, when the agency began using a set of harsh interrogation techniques weeks before the Justice Department issued a written legal opinion in August 2002 authorizing their use. Congressional investigators have long tried to determine exactly who authorized these techniques before the legal opinion was completed.

The documents are a list of answers provided by Rice and John Bellinger 3rd, the former top lawyer at the National Security Council, to detailed questions by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is investigating the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. Senator Carl Levin, the committee chairman, provided the documents to The New York Times, whose global edition is the International Herald Tribune.

ABC News first reported on the White House meetings in a broadcast earlier this year. Rice's answers to the questions shed some light on the internal deliberations among senior officials but do not present a clear picture of the positions taken by participants in the debate.

Some of the techniques proposed by the CIA - including waterboarding, which induces a feeling of drowning - came from a program used by the Pentagon to train U.S. pilots to withstand the rigors of captivity.

"I recall being told that U.S. military personnel were subjected in training to certain physical and psychological interrogation techniques and that these techniques had been deemed not to cause significant physical or psychological harm," Rice, now secretary of state, wrote in response to one question.

Still, Rice wrote that she had personally asked Ashcroft to review the program and "advise NSC principals whether the program was lawful."

Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on which officials attended the meetings in 2002. He said that Vice President Dick Cheney often attended meetings of the National Security Council's principals committee, a group that advises the president on national security.

The new documents do not specify dates for the White House meetings. Current and former officials have said that the CIA began using harsh interrogation methods weeks before the Justice Department formally authorized the interrogation program in a secret memo dated Aug. 1, 2002.

The officials said Justice Department lawyers gave oral guidance to the CIA before the secret memo was completed. But at one point during the summer of 2002, current and former intelligence officials have said, CIA lawyers ordered that the use of the harsh techniques be suspended until they were formally authorized by the Justice Department.

Bellinger, the former National Security Council legal adviser, wrote in a separate document released Wednesday that during the White House meetings, Justice Department lawyers frequently issued oral guidance to the CIA about the interrogation program. One who did was John Yoo, the principal author of the August 2002 memo, Bellinger said.