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CIA Tactics Endorsed In Secret Memos
But whatever misgivings existed that spring were apparently overcome. Former and current CIA officials say no such reservations were voiced in their presence.
In interviews, the officials recounted a series of private briefings about the program with members of the administration's security team, including Rice and Cheney, followed by more formal meetings before a larger group including then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. None of the officials recalled President Bush being present at any of the discussions.
Several of the key meetings have been previously described in news articles and books, but Rice last month became the first Cabinet-level official to publicly confirm the White House's awareness of the program in its earliest phases. In written responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rice said Tenet's description of the agency's interrogation methods prompted her to investigate further to see whether the program violated U.S. laws or international treaties, according to her written responses, dated Sept. 12 and released late last month.
"I asked that . . . Ashcroft personally advise the NSC principles whether the program was lawful," Rice wrote.
Current and former intelligence officials familiar with the briefings described Tenet as supportive of enhanced interrogation techniques, which the officials said were developed by CIA officers after the agency's first high-level captive, al-Qaeda operative Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, refused to cooperate with interrogators.
"The CIA believed then, and now, that the program was useful and helped save lives," said a former senior intelligence official knowledgeable about the events. "But in the agency's view, it was like this: 'We don't want to continue unless you tell us in writing that it's not only legal but is the policy of the administration.' "
One administration official familiar with the meetings said the CIA made such a convincing case that no one questioned whether the methods were necessary to prevent further terrorist attacks.
"The CIA had the White House boxed in," said the official. "They were saying, 'It's the only way to get the information we needed, and -- by the way -- we think there's another attack coming up.' It left the principals in an extremely difficult position and put the decision-making on a very fast track."
But others who were present said Tenet seemed more interested in protecting his subordinates than in selling the administration on a policy that administration lawyers had already authorized.
"The suggestion that someone from CIA came in and browbeat everybody is ridiculous," said one former agency official familiar with the meeting. "The CIA understood that it was controversial and would be widely criticized if it became public," the official said of the interrogation program. "But given the tenor of the times and the belief that more attacks were coming, they felt they had to do what they could to stop the attack."
The CIA's anxiety was partly fueled by the lack of explicit presidential authorization for the interrogation program. A secret White House "memorandum of notification" signed by Bush on Sept. 15, 2001, gave the agency broad authority to wage war against al-Qaeda, including killing and capturing its members. But it did not spell out how captives should be handled during interrogation.
But by the time the CIA requested written approval of its policy, in June 2003, the population of its secret prisons had grown from one to nine, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged principal architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Three of the detainees had been subjected to waterboarding, which involves strapping a prisoner to a board, covering his face and pouring water over his nose and mouth to simulate drowning.