At a briefing Tuesday, Gonzales declined to answer repeated questions about how the legal opinion, or the upcoming review of it, affected the CIA. But, he added, "As far as I'm told, every interrogation technique that has been authorized throughout the government is lawful and does not constitute torture."
Asked yesterday about the memo's circulation to a wider group of officials than previously known, White House spokeswoman Erin Healy replied in an e-mail: "It would not be uncommon for the Department of Justice to discuss issues with lawyers throughout the administration. Regardless, the President's policy is very clear. He expects detainees to be treated in a manner consistent with our laws, treaties and values. The President has spoken out against torture, he has never authorized it, nor will he. As we have said, portions of the memo are overbroad and the Department of Justice is reviewing it."
Ramzi Binalshibh was captured with the aid of an al Qaeda leader.
The legal debate over CIA interrogation techniques had its origins in the battlefields of Afghanistan, secret counterterrorism operations in Pakistan and in President Bush's decision to use unconventional tools in going after al Qaeda.
The interrogation methods were approved by Justice Department and National Security Council lawyers in 2002, briefed to key congressional leaders and required the authorization of CIA Director George J. Tenet for use, according to intelligence officials and other government officials with knowledge of the secret decision-making process.
When the CIA and the military "started capturing al Qaeda in Afghanistan, they had no interrogators, no special rules and no place to put them," said a senior Marine officer involved in detainee procedures. The FBI, which had the only full cadre of professional interrogators from its work with criminal networks in the United States, took the lead in questioning detainees.
But on Nov. 11, 2001, a senior al Qaeda operative who ran the Khaldan paramilitary camp in Afghanistan was captured by Pakistani forces and turned over to U.S. military forces in January 2002. The capture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan, sparked the first real debate over interrogations. The CIA wanted to use a range of methods, including threatening his life and family.
But the FBI had never authorized such methods. The bureau wanted to preserve the purity of interrogations so they could be used as evidence in court cases.
Al-Libi provided the CIA with intelligence about an alleged plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Yemen with a truck bomb and pointed officials in the direction of Abu Zubaida, a top al Qaeda leader known to have been involved with the Sept. 11 plot.
In March 2002, Abu Zubaida was captured, and the interrogation debate between the CIA and FBI began anew. This time, when FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III decided to withhold FBI involvement, it was a signal that the tug of war was over. "Once the CIA was given the green light . . . they had the lead role," said a senior FBI counterterrorism official.
Abu Zubaida was shot in the groin during his apprehension in Pakistan. U.S. national security officials have suggested that painkillers were used selectively in the beginning of his captivity until he agreed to cooperate more fully. His information led to the apprehension of other al Qaeda members, including Ramzi Binalshibh, also in Pakistan. The capture of Binalshibh and other al Qaeda leaders -- Omar al-Faruq in Indonesia, Rahim al-Nashiri in Kuwait and Muhammad al Darbi in Yemen -- were all partly the result of information gained during interrogations, according to U.S. intelligence and national security officials. All four remain under CIA control.
A former senior Justice Department official said interrogation techniques for "high-value targets" were reviewed and approved on a case-by-case basis, based partly on what strategies would work best on specific detainees. Justice lawyers suggested some limitations that were adopted, the former official said.
The former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the administration concluded that techniques did not amount to torture if they did not produce significant physical harm or injury. However, interrogators were allowed to trick the detainees into thinking they might be harmed or instructed to endure unpleasant physical tasks, such as being forced to stand or squat in stress positions.
"Clearly, that is not considered torture," the former Justice official argued. "It might be unpleasant and it might offend our sensibilities in most situations, but in these situations they were necessary and productive."
At the same time, the former official said, "we never had a situation where we said, 'You can do anything you want to.' We never, ever did that. We were aggressive, but our people were very scholarly and lawyerlike."
Staff writers John Mintz and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.