White House Torture Advisers

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 10, 2008; 1:20 PM

Top Bush aides, including Vice President Cheney, micromanaged the torture of terrorist suspects from the White House basement, according to an ABC News report aired last night.

Discussions were so detailed, ABC's sources said, that some interrogation sessions were virtually choreographed by a White House advisory group. In addition to Cheney, the group included then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, then-secretary of state Colin Powell, then-CIA director George Tenet and then-attorney general John Ashcroft.

At least one member of the club had some qualms. ABC reports that Ashcroft "was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.

"According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: 'Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.'"

Here's the video of last night's report by Jan Crawford Greenburg and a text version by Greenburg, Howard L. Rosenberg and Ariane de Vogue.

They write: "Highly placed sources said a handful of top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al Qaeda suspects -- whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding...."

"As the national security adviser, Rice chaired the meetings, which took place in the White House Situation Room."

The discussions started after the CIA captured al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah in the spring of 2002, ABC reports. "At a time when virtually all counterterrorist professionals viewed another attack as imminent -- and with information on al Qaeda scarce -- the detention of Zubaydah was seen as a potentially critical breakthrough."

According to ABC, the CIA briefed the White House group on its plans to use aggressive techniques against Zubaydah and received explicit approval. Zubaydah is one of the three detainees the CIA has since confirmed were subjected to waterboarding, a notorious torture technique that amounts to controlled drowning.

Such techniques were later authorized in a controversial August 2002 Justice Department memo, signed by then head of the Office of Legal Counsel Jay Bybee. ABC reports that the memo "was referred to as the so-called 'Golden Shield' for CIA agents, who worried they would be held liable if the harsh interrogations became public."

Nevertheless, even after the memo was in place, "briefings and meetings in the White House to discuss individual interrogations continued, sources said. Tenet, seeking to protect his agents, regularly sought confirmation from the NSC principals that specific interrogation plans were legal. . . .

"According to a former CIA official involved in the process, CIA headquarters would receive cables from operatives in the field asking for authorization for specific techniques. Agents, worried about overstepping their boundaries, would await guidance in particularly complicated cases dealing with high-value detainees, two CIA sources said. . . .

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