By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009
A top aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attended a CIA briefing in early 2003 in which it was made clear that waterboarding and other harsh techniques were being used in the interrogation of an alleged al-Qaeda operative, according to documents the CIA released to Congress on Thursday.
Pelosi has insisted that she was not directly briefed by Bush administration officials that the practice was being actively employed. But Michael Sheehy, a top Pelosi aide, was present for a classified briefing that included Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), then the ranking minority member of the House intelligence committee, at which agency officials discussed the use of waterboarding on terrorism suspect Abu Zubaida.
A Democratic source acknowledged yesterday that it is almost certain that Pelosi would have learned about the use of waterboarding from Sheehy. Pelosi herself acknowledged in a December 2007 statement that she was aware that Harman had learned of the waterboarding and had objected in a letter to the CIA's top counsel.
"It was my understanding at that time that Congresswoman Harman filed a letter in early 2003 to the CIA to protest the use of such techniques, a protest with which I concurred," Pelosi said in the Dec. 9, 2007, statement.
Precisely what Pelosi learned in classified intelligence briefings she received on interrogations has become a flash point in the battle over the effectiveness and legality of the methods used to extract information from alleged al-Qaeda operatives in the first years after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Republicans have accused Pelosi and other Democrats who attended the earliest classified briefings of knowing what CIA operatives were doing and offering their support for the methods, including waterboarding. They argue that Pelosi, who served as the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee until January 2003, objected only after the use of the techniques became public several years later.
"I have every belief that either she or [Harman] were told waterboarding was going on. I have no doubt that the Democratic leadership on this committee in the House knew it was going on," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), who has been the top Republican on the intelligence panel since fall 2004.
Hoekstra, who requested the history of agency briefings of members of Congress, is also seeking notes made by the CIA during each briefing, documents that he said last week include "a very precise accounting of the substance of each briefing." He said those memos would detail "not only the specific information provided, but also the degree of bipartisan consensus that existed with respect to the programs in question."
In a letter to Hoekstra, CIA Director Leon Panetta said the classified memos describing what was said at each briefing would be available at CIA headquarters for review by congressional staff, according to an agency official.
Although the CIA did not initiate the requests for the details of its many briefings of members of Congress, beginning in September 2002, senior officials have chafed at criticism of their interrogation activities from lawmakers who, when made aware of the programs over past years, mostly did not object. One former senior agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the substance of the briefings is classified, said some lawmakers, after being told of the enhanced techniques, "questioned whether we were doing enough."
The fierce debate was sparked three weeks ago by the release of Bush-era Justice Department memos that expanded the legal guidelines for CIA agents interrogating alleged al-Qaeda operatives. The new documents released to Congress by the CIA on Thursday stated that Pelosi was briefed on the "use of" harsh interrogation techniques in September 2002, although the documents do not state that waterboarding was mentioned.
The absence of any description in the new documents of her being briefed on waterboarding has become a critical distinction for Pelosi. She has said that briefers discussed waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques as legal options but that they never told her such methods were being used.
"We were not -- I repeat -- were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used. What they did tell us is that they had some . . . Office of [Legal] Counsel opinions, that they could be used, but not that they would," she told reporters on April 23.
A top aide reiterated that position yesterday. "The speaker was briefed only once, in September 2002," said spokesman Brendan Daly. "The briefers described these techniques, said they were legal, but said that waterboarding had not yet been used."
Democrats contend that the issue is not what Pelosi knew and when she knew it, but the restrictive nature of the briefings during the Bush administration. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, is leading a renewed effort to expand the briefing process. In the first four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, only the four leaders of the intelligence panels were briefed on the most sensitive issues, and they were forbidden from discussing what they learned with anyone else.
Pelosi's only briefing came Sept. 4, 2002, a week before the first anniversary of the attacks, and included then-Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who at the time was chairman of the intelligence committee. Along with their chief counsels, they were the first congressional officials briefed on the interrogation tactics. Pelosi left the intelligence committee in January 2003 to become the House Democratic leader, remaining one of eight lawmakers who had the highest clearances to access classified information.
Five months after the Pelosi-Goss meeting, in briefings for the new leaders of the Senate intelligence committee, the CIA "described in considerable detail . . . how the water board was used," according to the documents released Thursday. The next day, Feb. 5, 2003, Harman received a similar briefing as Pelosi's replacement as the top House intelligence committee Democrat.
Harman was surprised at what she learned, particularly that intelligence officials had video of the waterboarding of Abu Zubaida and were planning on destroying it. Captured in early 2002, Abu Zubaida, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, faced months of standard interrogations before being sent to a CIA-run facility where the harsher techniques were used.
Harman wrote to the CIA's general counsel on Feb. 10, 2003, to question whether the methods "are consistent with the principles and policies of the United States. Have enhanced techniques been authorized and approved by the president?"
The Washington Post reported in extensive detail on Dec. 9, 2007, about the briefings that Harman and other leaders of the intelligence committees received in the first few years of the U.S. campaign against terrorism. The day of the report, Pelosi issued the statement standing by her account that she was "briefed on techniques the administration was considering using in the future" and adding that she "concurred" with Harman's protest of the tactics.
Neither Pelosi nor her staff would comment on how she learned of the techniques she now considers torture, and Harman said in an interview that she "did not recall" discussing the issue with Pelosi. Sheehy was Pelosi's top aide on the intelligence committee when she served as the ranking Democrat on that panel, and he remained her top national security aide until he left the speaker's office this year.
Pelosi never filed any official letter of protest, but some lawmakers said such objections to the Bush administration at that time were pointless.
"I felt that it was minimally responsive," Harman said of the CIA's response to her February 2003 letter. "It didn't address the issue I asked."
A bipartisan group of lawmakers says that the restrictions placed on the intelligence committee leaders -- the "Gang of Four," which included the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate panels -- limited any oversight role Congress could play. In the fall of 2005, a few other congressional leaders, including those that controlled the CIA's budget, were briefed on interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. The full House and Senate intelligence committees were not briefed on the matter until September 2006, four years after the initial Pelosi briefing.
Unless the full committee is aware of such issues, Feinstein said in an interview, Congress has no power to act. "I believe in it very strongly, no equivocation at all. There must be notification for all committee members," Feinstein said.
But some Republicans said Democrats are now looking to cover themselves politically for not objecting to a process that their liberal supporters oppose. "There is a protocol for who gets briefed, depending on the issue," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "It's an open forum."
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.