Cheney Led Briefings of Lawmakers to Defend Interrogation Techniques
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Former vice president Richard B. Cheney personally oversaw at least four briefings with senior members of Congress about the controversial interrogation program, part of a secretive and forceful defense he mounted throughout 2005 in an effort to maintain support for the harsh techniques used on detainees.
The Cheney-led briefings came at some of the most critical moments for the program, as congressional oversight committees were threatening to investigate or even terminate the techniques, according to lawmakers, congressional officials, and current and former intelligence officials.
Cheney's role in helping handle intelligence issues in the Bush administration -- particularly his advocacy for the use of aggressive methods and warrantless wiretapping against alleged terrorists -- has been well documented. But his hands-on role in defending the interrogation program to lawmakers has not been previously publicized.
The CIA made no mention of his role in documents delivered to Capitol Hill last month that listed every lawmaker who had been briefed on "enhanced interrogation techniques" since 2002. For meetings that were overseen by Cheney, the agency told the intelligence committees that information about who oversaw those briefings was "not available."
The revelations do not shed light on whether top Democrats, as Republicans contend, were aware that waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, was being used on terrorism suspects as early as the fall of 2002. That discussion has dominated Capitol Hill since last month, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was not present at any of the briefings that included Cheney, accused the agency of intentionally misleading her in a 2002 briefing about the use of waterboarding.
An official who witnessed one of Cheney's briefing sessions with lawmakers said the vice president's presence appeared calculated to give additional heft to the CIA's case for maintaining the program. Cheney left it to the professional briefers to outline the interrogation practices, while he mounted an impassioned defense of the program.
"This is a really important issue for the security of the United States," the official recalled Cheney saying.
The CIA declined to comment on why Cheney's presence in some meetings was left out of the records. One senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the names of individual briefers are omitted in all cases -- they do not appear in any of the public documents that describe congressional briefings. In at least some cases, he added, the identity of the briefer was never recorded in the agency's records.
For all but seven of the 40 meetings listed, however, the documents outlined which agency led the briefing and which provided support. And on at least five occasions, they spelled out that then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden led the classified meetings.
Since leaving office in January, Cheney has mounted a vigorous public defense of the interrogation practices. Speaking at the National Press Club on Monday, he said CIA officials approached the White House in 2002 with the request to use harsher techniques such as waterboarding.
"We all approved it. I'm a strong believer in it. I think it was the right thing to do," said Cheney, who is now pushing for the declassification of the information gained from the detainees who were subjected to the most brutal techniques.
Several members of Congress who took part in the Cheney meetings declined to comment on them, citing secrecy concerns. But there was little doubt that he was leading the charge on the issue.