By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Intelligence and military officials under the Bush administration began preparing to conduct harsh interrogations long before they were granted legal approval to use such methods -- and weeks before the CIA captured its first high-ranking terrorism suspect, Senate investigators have concluded.
Previously secret memos and interviews show CIA and Pentagon officials exploring ways to break Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees in early 2002, up to eight months before Justice Department lawyers approved the use of waterboarding and nine other harsh methods, investigators found.
The findings are contained in a Senate Armed Services Committee report scheduled for release today that also documents multiple warnings -- from legal and trained interrogation experts -- that the techniques could backfire and might violate U.S. and international law.
One Army lieutenant colonel who reviewed the program warned in 2002 that coercion "usually decreases the reliability of the information because the person will say whatever he believes will stop the pain," according to the Senate report. A second official, briefed on plans to use aggressive techniques on detainees, was quoted the same year as asking: "Wouldn't that be illegal?"
Once they were accepted, the methods became the basis for harsh interrogations not only in CIA secret prisons, but also in Defense Department internment camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan and Iraq, the report said.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee, said the new findings show a direct link between the early policy decisions and the highly publicized abuses of detainees at prisons such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
"Senior officials sought out information on, were aware of training in, and authorized the use of abusive interrogation techniques," Levin said. "Those senior officials bear significant responsibility for creating the legal and operational framework for the abuses."
The new findings are expected to add further pressure on the White House to authorize an independent investigation of the Bush-era interrogation policies. President Obama for the first time yesterday refused to rule out the possibility of a probe to determine whether government lawyers acted illegally in approving interrogation practices. Obama said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. should determine whether they broke the law.
The report, which runs 261 pages and contains nearly 1,800 footnotes, sheds new light on the adaptation of techniques from a U.S. military program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), used to train American service personnel to resist interrogations if captured by an enemy that does not honor the Geneva Conventions' ban on torture.
The military's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) has been reported to have reverse-engineered these methods to break al-Qaeda prisoners. The techniques, including waterboarding, or simulated drowning, were drawn from the methods used by Chinese Communists to coerce confessions from U.S. soldiers during the Korean War -- a lineage that one instructor appeared to readily acknowledge.
"We can provide the ability to exploit personnel based on how our enemies have done this type of thing over the last five decades," Joseph Witsch wrote in a July 2002 memo.
The report shows Pentagon officials reaching out to the military agency for advice on interrogations as early as December 2001 and finding some specialists eager to help. By late 2001, counterterrorism officials were becoming frustrated by the paucity of useful leads coming from interrogations -- a meager showing that was linked, according to one Army major, to interrogators' insistence on "establishing a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq," the report said.
By January 2002, James Mitchell, a retired Air Force psychologist, and Bruce Jessen, the senior SERE psychologist at the agency, drafted a paper on "al-Qaeda resistance capabilities and countermeasures to defeat that resistance." Both later consulted for the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, and conducted training courses on how to interrogate high-level captives, the report said.
A memo by Jessen proposed an interrogation program that closely resembled the ones adopted by the CIA and the Defense Department. It recommended the creation of an "exploitation facility" that would be off limits to outside observers, including journalists and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Inside, a team would use such tactics as sleep deprivation, physical violence and waterboarding to apply physical and psychological pressure on detainees.
Agency officials also suggested other controversial tactics that were later reported to have been used in interrogation programs, including sexually provocative acts by female interrogators and the use of military dogs to induce fear, the report said.
The school instructors conducted a training seminar for intelligence officials in early July 2002. At the seminar, two "agency legal personnel" told the group that harsh measures were already deemed acceptable, even though Justice Department approval was still a month away.
"They [interrogators] could use all forms of psychological pressure discussed, and all the physiological pressures with the exception of the 'water board,' " the lawyers were quoted as saying at the seminar. Waterboarding might also be permitted, but the interrogators "would need prior approval," the report said.
The Senate report confirms participation by SERE officials in the interrogation of Abu Zubaida, an al-Qaeda associate who was the first high-level CIA detainee and the first to be subjected to waterboarding.
"At some point in the first six months of 2002, JPRA assisted with the preparation of a [redacted name], sent to interrogate a high level al Qaeda operative," according to the Senate report. A June 20, 2002, memo described the assistance as "training" and noted that the JPRA psychologist suggested "exploitation strategies to [redacted] officer."
Jessen, who was interviewed by Senate committee staff members in November 2007, confirmed that such a meeting took place. Mitchell, the former Air Force psychologist, was present at Abu Zubaida's interrogation and was said to have played a key role in what the CIA called an "increased pressure phase," according to former intelligence and law enforcement officials.
The report also repeats, but does not confirm, long-held suspicions that the interrogation of Abu Zubaida became coercive before the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo on Aug. 1, 2002, sanctioning the use of 10 escalating techniques, culminating in waterboarding.
Abu Zubaida, the nom de guerre of Saudi-born Palestinian Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, was captured in Pakistan on March 28, 2002, and transferred to a secret CIA prison in Thailand. To justify the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on him, the Aug. 1 memo invoked a ticking-bomb scenario.
The CIA told the Justice Department that there was a "level of chatter" equal to the period before Sept. 11, 2001, and said that Abu Zubaida was withholding information regarding "terrorist networks in the United States" and "plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas," according to the memo.
John A. Rizzo, a CIA lawyer, asked the Justice Department whether the use of additional interrogation techniques would violate the prohibition against torture.
Yet, the Senate report notes, weeks before the Justice Department approved harsh interrogation for Abu Zubaida, an FBI agent described the CIA's handling of the terrorism suspect as "borderline torture."
A second FBI agent present at Abu Zubaida's interrogation said he had no "moral objection" to the techniques and noted that he had "undergone comparable harsh interrogation as part of [SERE] training." Both agents had left the CIA site by early June 2002. No substantive plots were disrupted as a result of information provided during Abu Zubaida's interrogation, according to current and former counterterrorism officials.
Brent Mickum, one of Abu Zubaida's attorneys in a habeas corpus proceeding in U.S. District Court in Washington, said he believes the Justice Department's Aug. 1, 2002, memo retroactively approved coercive tactics that had already been used.
"If torture occurred before the memo was written, it's not worth the paper it's written on, and the writing of the memo is potentially criminal," Mickum said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.