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Cheney Led Briefings of Lawmakers to Defend Interrogation Techniques
"His office was ground zero. It was his office you dealt with at the end of the day," recalled Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who jousted with Cheney over the system of interrogations.
One of the most critical Cheney-led briefings came in late October 2005, when the vice president and Porter J. Goss, then director of the CIA, read Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) into the program on the interrogation methods, according to congressional and intelligence sources.
One knowledgeable official described the meeting as contentious. Cheney and Goss, with other CIA officials present, tried to persuade the former Vietnam POW to back off an anti-torture amendment that had already won the support of 90 senators.
The McCain amendment would have ended practices such as waterboarding by forbidding "cruel, degrading and inhumane" treatment of detainees. The CIA had not used waterboarding since 2003, but the White House sought to maintain the ability to employ it.
In the meetings with lawmakers, Cheney was adamant that the enhanced interrogations were needed to preserve national security, according to two participants. He advocated briefing more lawmakers about the program, against the wishes of National Security Council officials who sought to inform only the top members of the intelligence committees.
Lawmakers at times challenged Cheney and CIA officials about the legality of the program and pressed for specific results that would show whether the techniques worked. In response, the CIA briefers said that half of the agency's knowledge about al-Qaeda's plans and structure had been obtained through the interrogations.
Before the McCain briefing, Cheney met with a friendlier audience, his longtime friends Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who oversaw the Pentagon's annual spending bill, to which the McCain amendment was attached. Cochran said yesterday that it was the first time he had been given a full description of what waterboarding entailed.
"I found the conversation with the vice president to be very candid, straightforward, helpful," Cochran said.
CIA records indicate that another briefing -- for which the briefer's name is "not available" -- was given to Senate GOP leaders on Nov. 1, 2005. That was the same day Cheney made a regular appearance at the weekly Tuesday luncheon for Senate Republicans. Cheney usually engaged only in brief, quiet asides with senators at the lunches. But at this meeting -- the day before The Washington Post published a detailed account of the CIA's secret overseas prison system -- Cheney rose to speak, and the room was cleared of all staff.
He discussed the value of the interrogation program and the information gleaned by using the harsh techniques, according to numerous contemporaneous media accounts.
Cheney's briefings on interrogations began in the winter of 2005 as the top Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees, Sen. John D. Rockefeller III (W.Va.) and Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), publicly advocated a full-scale investigation of the tactics used against top al-Qaeda suspects.
On March 8, 2005 -- two days after a detailed report in the New York Times about interrogations -- Cheney gathered Rockefeller, Harman and the chairmen of the intelligence panels, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), according to current and former intelligence officials. Weeks earlier, Roberts had given public statements suggesting possible support for the investigation sought by Rockefeller. But by early March 2005, Roberts announced that he opposed a separate probe, and the matter soon died.
Cheney's efforts to sway Congress toward supporting waterboarding went beyond secret meetings in Washington. In July 2005, he sent David S. Addington, his chief counsel at the time, to travel with five senators -- four of them opponents of the CIA interrogation methods -- to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On the trip, Sen. Graham urged Addington to put the interrogations at secret prisons and the use of military tribunals into a stronger constitutional position by pushing legislation through Congress, rather than relying on executive orders and secret rulings from Justice Department lawyers.
Subsequent court rulings would challenge the legality of the system, and Justice Department lawyers were privately drafting new rules on interrogations. Addington dismissed the views of Graham, who had been a military lawyer.
"I've got all the authority I need right here," Addington said, pulling from his coat a pocket-size copy of the Constitution, according to the senator, suggesting there was no doubt about the system's legal footing.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.