Hill Briefed on Waterboarding in 2002
Sunday, December 9, 2007
In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.
Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.
"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.
Congressional leaders from both parties would later seize on waterboarding as a symbol of the worst excesses of the Bush administration's counterterrorism effort. The CIA last week admitted that videotape of an interrogation of one of the waterboarded detainees was destroyed in 2005 against the advice of Justice Department and White House officials, provoking allegations that its actions were illegal and the destruction was a coverup.
Yet long before "waterboarding" entered the public discourse, the CIA gave key legislative overseers about 30 private briefings, some of which included descriptions of that technique and other harsh interrogation methods, according to interviews with multiple U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge.
With one known exception, no formal objections were raised by the lawmakers briefed about the harsh methods during the two years in which waterboarding was employed, from 2002 to 2003, said Democrats and Republicans with direct knowledge of the matter. The lawmakers who held oversight roles during the period included Pelosi and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), as well as Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan).
Individual lawmakers' recollections of the early briefings varied dramatically, but officials present during the meetings described the reaction as mostly quiet acquiescence, if not outright support. "Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing," said Goss, who chaired the House intelligence committee from 1997 to 2004 and then served as CIA director from 2004 to 2006. "And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement."
Congressional officials say the groups' ability to challenge the practices was hampered by strict rules of secrecy that prohibited them from being able to take notes or consult legal experts or members of their own staffs. And while various officials have described the briefings as detailed and graphic, it is unclear precisely what members were told about waterboarding and how it is conducted. Several officials familiar with the briefings also recalled that the meetings were marked by an atmosphere of deep concern about the possibility of an imminent terrorist attack.
"In fairness, the environment was different then because we were closer to Sept. 11 and people were still in a panic," said one U.S. official present during the early briefings. "But there was no objecting, no hand-wringing. The attitude was, 'We don't care what you do to those guys as long as you get the information you need to protect the American people.' "
Only after information about the practice began to leak in news accounts in 2005 -- by which time the CIA had already abandoned waterboarding -- did doubts about its legality among individual lawmakers evolve into more widespread dissent. The opposition reached a boiling point this past October, when Democratic lawmakers condemned the practice during Michael B. Mukasey's confirmation hearings for attorney general.
GOP lawmakers and Bush administration officials have previously said members of Congress were well informed and were supportive of the CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques. But the details of who in Congress knew what, and when, about waterboarding -- a form of simulated drowning that is the most extreme and widely condemned interrogation technique -- have not previously been disclosed.
U.S. law requires the CIA to inform Congress of covert activities and allows the briefings to be limited in certain highly sensitive cases to a "Gang of Eight," including the four top congressional leaders of both parties as well as the four senior intelligence committee members. In this case, most briefings about detainee programs were limited to the "Gang of Four," the top Republican and Democrat on the two committees. A few staff members were permitted to attend some of the briefings.