Analysis: Bush, Obama Administrations Drew Different Lessons From CIA Report

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When an internal CIA report concluded in May 2004 that "unauthorized, improvised, inhumane, and undocumented" interrogation methods had been used on suspected al-Qaeda members, the predominant reaction within the Bush administration was not revulsion but frustration that the agency's efforts inside a network of secret prisons had not been more effective, former senior intelligence and White House officials recall.

Top officials in the Obama administration on Monday made clear that they read the report differently. Despite CIA resistance, they released unflattering portions of it on the same day the attorney general authorized a prosecutor to decide whether CIA employees broke the law while undertaking or overseeing those interrogations.

They also wrested control of future interrogations of suspected senior al-Qaeda members away from the CIA and handed it to an interagency group that will be housed at the FBI -- whose agents had not only objected to the CIA's techniques but also refused to stay in the rooms where they were practiced.

In supporting harsh interrogation methods, officials in the Bush administration have said they were strongly influenced by pervasive fear and anxiety that another attack on the United States was imminent, and that virtually any measure the Justice Department approved was seen as justified.

Obama and his aides, in contrast, have concluded that the benefits of the harsh interrogation program were unproven or slight, and that the costs to America's standing in the world exceed any potential gains from allowing it to persist.

A New Approach

Many of the Obama administration's top national security appointees are addressing the issues for the first time: They were not part of the CIA, the Justice Department or the White House staff during that frenetic period of 2002 to 2004, when the CIA report said the interrogations were conducted with inadequate staffing or support and under incomplete guidelines that left "substantial room for misinterpretation."

Obama and his director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, have also emphasized the need to conduct counterterrorism initiatives more openly. They have embraced the CIA report's conclusion that harsh interrogation techniques were a historic aberration that might bring "long-term political and legal challenges."

The CIA's interrogation program "diverges sharply," the report stated, "from previous Agency policy and practice, rules that govern interrogations by U.S. military and law enforcement officers, statements of U.S. policy by the Department of State, and public statements by very senior U.S. officials, including the President, as well as the policies expressed by members of Congress, other Western governments, international organizations, and human rights groups."

The administration's announcement Monday that the new interrogation task force will shun use of such harsh techniques -- and stick with milder interrogation practices that already govern the U.S. military -- risks alienating some CIA officials. But it might cheer those inside the agency who expressed concern to the inspector general in 2002 and 2003 that the interrogation program involved potential "violations of human rights," as the report stated, or who counted themselves as supporters of those who blew that whistle.

The CIA's program has exposed political cleavages across Washington. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said the report released Monday illustrates the perils of "excusing torture," but Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) said it showed that the tactics "produced a wealth of information." Such differences, though, obscure the fact that those inside the intelligence community have long had divergent views about the CIA's methods.

Alarm Within the Agency

The precise reasons for the inspector general's review remained censored in the version released Monday, but officials have said privately it was provoked in part by alarms sounded within the CIA after the freezing death in November 2002 of a young Afghan at an agency-funded prison outside Kabul. A CIA case officer had ordered the detainee stripped and shackled to a concrete floor without blankets.

That incident -- along with complaints within the agency about a mock execution and the threatened use of a drill against a detainee -- led the CIA general counsel's office to begin drawing up the first formal guidelines for detainee treatment and interrogation, which then-CIA Director George J. Tenet adopted in January 2003. In the report released Monday, those rules were still judged inadequate by the then-inspector general, John L. Helgerson.

Others outside the agency had cautioned against such harsh interrogation techniques. In 2003, Navy general counsel Alberto Mora warned the Pentagon's top lawyer that the techniques, many of which had also been authorized for use at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had been judged illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in an inquiry growing out of British rule in Northern Ireland. The FBI, having concluded that stress positions, forced nudity, mock executions and waterboarding were abusive in all circumstances, ordered employees not to cooperate or participate in such activities.

Those objections did not hold sway during the Bush administration, as they do today. If the rest of the world disapproved, senior officials said they concluded at the time, that was good reason to restrict knowledge of the harsh interrogation program so tightly that just dozens knew its details. Its records were, as the Justice Department said in a court filing last November, part of a "Sensitive Compartmented Information special access program to enhance their protection from unauthorized disclosure."

'Willing to Go Along'

After the CIA report was provided to the White House in 2004, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, suggested that the CIA directorate of operations organize a fresh review of the program. But neither interfered with the program when then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss reported back to them in mid-2004 that it was working as it should, according to former White House officials and documents provided to Congress.

The report's disclosure that waterboarding, or simulated drowning, had been practiced more aggressively than planned prompted Tenet to suspend its use, and the Justice Department to say it could not be restarted until new rules were imposed and a new legal review was finished, a former CIA official said. But eventually the practice -- which Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. have both described as torture -- was approved again, although never used.

"There were intelligence professionals who questioned the use of aggressive means . . . [but] most people were willing to go along," said a former senior CIA official who spoke about the agency's decision-making on the condition of anonymity. "They thought the survival of the country might be at stake, that terrorists could have WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. . . . There was a real concern of racing against time."

Helgerson, however, said in an e-mailed comment on Monday that he undertook the study in part because many CIA employees involved in or aware of the program "expressed to me personally their feelings that what the Agency was doing was fundamentally inconsistent with long-established US Government policy and with American values, and was based on strained legal reasoning."

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