By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008
The White House yesterday directly joined a debate over the use of simulated drownings to force disclosures by CIA detainees, saying the interrogation technique known as waterboarding was legal and that President Bush could authorize the tactic in the future.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the CIA could use waterboarding with Bush's approval, which would "depend on the circumstances," including whether "an attack might be imminent." Independent legal experts have called the technique torture and said its use is barred by U.S. laws and treaties under all circumstances.
In the past, Fratto said, "every enhanced technique that has been used by the CIA for this program was brought to the Department of Justice, and they made a determination that its use under specific circumstances and with safeguards was lawful."
Fratto was pressed to comment after CIA Director Michael V. Hayden confirmed on Tuesday that the agency had used waterboarding on three al-Qaeda detainees after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Although waterboarding has been the subject of fierce congressional debate for several years, the CIA had not previously publicly confirmed its use.
Fratto said yesterday that Bush had authorized the confirmation because of "misinformation" about the tactic, and "to be very clear about how those techniques were used and what the benefits were." Hayden said Tuesday that the tactic was used because of the "belief that additional catastrophic attacks against the homeland were inevitable" after Sept. 11.
The Justice Department is investigating whether CIA officials obstructed justice by destroying videotapes that depicted waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods on two detainees held by the agency in Thailand. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who will testify today before the House Judiciary Committee, told a Senate panel last week that the probe could also look at the legality of the interrogation methods.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the Bush administration's admissions about waterboarding mark an important milestone. "It's not an abstract debate anymore," Malinowski said. "They've acknowledged that they've waterboarded people, and virtually every legal authority in the United States believes that waterboarding is torture and a crime."
Democrats and Republicans have criticized the CIA's use of waterboarding. The current front-runner in the Republican presidential race, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and two other Republican senators said in a letter to Mukasey in October that "we were personally assured by Administration officials" that a 2006 law governing interrogations by the CIA and other agencies "prohibited waterboarding."
McCain's campaign referred questions yesterday to his Senate office, which did not respond to a request for comment late in the day.
On the Democratic side, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) this week placed a hold on the nomination of federal judge Mark Filip to be deputy attorney general until Durbin gets Mukasey's reply to a demand for a criminal investigation of the CIA's use of waterboarding. Other Democrats have also demanded a criminal probe, and at least one other Justice Department nomination is stalled in connection with the debate over torture.