By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The Justice Department's decision Monday to expand an existing investigation of potentially illegal actions related to the CIA's counterterrorism program provoked fresh criticism from former vice president Richard B. Cheney, a strong supporter of the harsh interrogation techniques central to the program.
Cheney said in a statement released Monday that "President Obama's decision to allow" prosecutor John H. Durham -- a Republican appointed during the Bush administration to look into the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes -- to examine the legality of other interrogation-related activities was "a reminder, if any were needed" of why some Americans question the Obama administration's ability to protect the nation.
Cheney added that CIA summaries of the results of its interrogations, released on Monday at his request, document that the agency's implementation of Bush administration policies was "directly responsible for defeating all efforts by al-Qaeda to launch further mass casualty attacks" on the country.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called Cheney's comments "off base" and took umbrage at the idea that Obama had personally allowed Durham to expand his inquiry. "This was not something the White House allowed, this was something the AG decided," the official said, referring to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
"Now, this might have been the SOP in the previous administration as far as what you 'allow' the Justice Department to do, but I thought that there was statutory authority and responsibility to make sure that the attorney general has to make sure he does what he believes is in the best interest of justice," the official said.
Portions of the two memos Cheney wanted released describe several plots disclosed by detainees who were subjected to harsh questioning but do not specifically attribute the revelations to the use of those techniques.
For example, one memo called the intelligence reports produced from CIA detainee questioning "a crucial pillar of US counterterrorism efforts." But it did not distinguish between reports derived from the harsh interrogations at issue -- which were applied to 30 CIA detainees -- and the milder techniques used on 68 CIA detainees.
That CIA memo was written on June 3, 2005, during a period when the Bush administration was trying to fend off legislation sponsored by a handful of Senate Republicans that barred "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of military detainees during similar interrogations.
The other CIA memo released at Cheney's urging summarized information provided by reputed al-Qaeda military planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was subjected to waterboarding, or simulated drowning, 183 times in March 2003. It said he "not only dramatically expanded our universe of knowledge" about al-Qaeda plots but also provided information that led to the capture of others, including the leader of the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist group in Indonesia.
The memo, dated July 13, 2004, was completed two months after then-CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson, who had access to the same data, concluded in a top-secret report that although the program had helped identify and capture terrorists and ferret out plots, measuring the effectiveness of the harsh techniques was "a more subjective process and not without some concern."
Helgerson's memo, released in part on Monday, said that there are "limited data on which to assess" the effectiveness of the techniques and that CIA field officers believed they were sometimes applied to specific detainees without justification, because of poor assumptions in Washington about how much the detainees knew.
Notwithstanding those cautions, the documents released this week made clear that senior CIA officials supported the program despite what Helgerson called "the potentially serious long-term political and legal challenges" it posed.
In a memo dated Aug. 31, 2006, that endorsed some harsh conditions at the secret CIA prisons, Steven G. Bradbury, then-acting assistant attorney general, said he was relying in part on assurances from CIA general counsel John A. Rizzo that "interrogations conducted pursuant to the program have led to specific, actionable intelligence about terrorist threats to the United States and its interests."
Bradbury added in the memo, disclosed late Monday, that intelligence provided by CIA prisoners had by 2004 accounted for half of all the counterterrorism center's reports on al-Qaeda.
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.