By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Top White House officials were told in early 2002 about harsh measures used by the CIA to extract information from suspected al-Qaeda terrorists in the agency's secret prisons, according to an account given to congressional investigators by the office of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The details of the controversial program were discussed in multiple meetings inside the White House over a two-year period, triggering concerns among several officials who worried that the agency's methods might be illegal or violate anti-torture treaties, according to separate statements signed by Rice and her top legal adviser.
"I expressed concern that the proposed CIA interrogation techniques comply with applicable U.S. law, including our international obligations," John B. Bellinger III, legal adviser to Rice at the State Department and formerly her top legal aide at the National Security Council, said in written answers to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.
While media reports have described internal White House debates over the CIA's program, the accounts by Rice and Bellinger are believed to be the first such acknowledgment of such discussions by a member of the Bush Cabinet.
The written accounts specifically name former attorney general John D. Ashcroft and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as participants in the discussions, according to copies of the statements released by committee officials in advance of a hearing scheduled for today. The committee's questionnaire did not specifically ask whether President Bush or Vice President Cheney attended the meetings.
In her responses, compiled in a seven-page memo, Rice indicated that she asked Ashcroft to "personally review the legal guidance" of Bush administration lawyers who had declared the CIA's program to be legal.
Rice and Bellinger both said they recalled related discussions inside the White House of an obscure Army survival training program that subjected military trainees to waterboarding -- a technique that simulates drowning -- and other harsh tactics to prepare them for conditions they might face if captured. The survival program, known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, was the inspiration for several of the interrogation methods later used at both CIA and Defense Department detention camps.
Rice said she remembered meetings at which the SERE methods were discussed but said she was assured that the tactics "had been deemed not to cause significant physical or psychological harm."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) has been investigating the origins of the decision to use harsh interrogation tactics on high-level detainees held by the Pentagon and CIA. Many congressional Democrats and some Republicans have equated some of the techniques to torture. Levin has linked the decision to use SERE methods to the abuse that occurred at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
"These discussions took place at the highest levels of the White House," Levin said in an interview. The documents belie administration claims that abuse of detainees was "the work of a few bad apples," he said.
Levin noted that the SERE methods themselves -- which included not only waterboarding but also exposure to temperature extremes, forced nudity and sensory deprivation -- were designed by Chinese communists to extract confessions from captured U.S. servicemen.
"The validity of the confessions they didn't care about; they just wanted the confessions so they could put them on TV," Levin said.
In their accounts, Rice and Bellinger indicate that several senior officials were uneasy with the program, even though top legal experts at both the CIA and the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel had officially sanctioned the techniques as legal. Bellinger remembered repeated calls from Bruce Swartz, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division, about alleged abuses of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison. Bellinger said he forwarded the complaints to the Defense Department and was told that an investigation was already underway.
The main concern was not the legality of the interrogation methods but whether they were "effective and professional and being resourced in the most effective way," Bellinger said.
Levin said today's hearing will focus on the early decisions to use SERE techniques. He is expected to call as witnesses two military officers who worked in Defense survival schools and later observed the application of similar techniques on suspected terrorists.
In June, Levin's committee released Defense Department documents suggesting that Pentagon officials became interested in SERE tactics after learning of their successful application in secret CIA prisons.