The Justice Department is pressing the CIA to publicly reveal the specific interrogation methods authorized by the Bush administration for a handful of senior al Qaeda captives, senior department officials said.
Department officials said they believe the disclosure will help put to rest what they describe as a public misperception that Justice officials approved interrogation methods that bordered on torture.
The specific interrogation tactics have been classified since they were first used in questioning al Qaeda suspects picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Much attention has focused on an August 2002 opinion from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that torture might be justified in some cases -- an opinion the department repudiated last week. The purpose of the 50-page opinion was to provide an overall legal framework for the interrogation of captives who might have information about planned attacks on the United States.
But the specific tactics authorized for individual interrogations were detailed in separate documents drafted about the same time by the CIA and approved by lawyers in the deputy attorney general's office and the department's criminal division, the senior Justice officials said. The department has refused to release the documents because they are classified, but officials said they did not violate U.S. law barring the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering.
The rules in question concern the interrogation of senior al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who are held at undisclosed facilities operated by the CIA. The rules do not apply to the prisoners held by the military in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as in Iraq and elsewhere.
In previous Washington Post interviews, former intelligence officials and U.S. national security officials, including several people who had witnessed the handling of prisoners, said some prisoners were subjected to "stress and duress" techniques. Some of the specific tactics have been made public in news reports, and they included sleep deprivation, the disorientation of detainees and tricking captives into believing they had been or would be taken for questioning to countries where they would be tortured.
One person involved in the Justice Department's effort to set rules for CIA interrogators said the methods approved in the documents involved the use of psychological manipulation, fear and "low grade physical stuff" that did not inflict injury. "It was not drugs or pain. We had to draw the line," said this source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The harshest interrogation technique approved for any captive, according to two people familiar with the authorized methods, was intended to elicit information from Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks who was captured in Pakistan in March 2003. The classified technique includes covering a captive with wet towels to cause discomfort and a drowning sensation, the sources said.
The CIA first asked the Justice Department to approve specific interrogation methods in late spring or early summer of 2002, after the capture of Zubaida, al Qaeda's operations chief, that March, said current and former government officials. In August 2002, the two agencies developed a list of approved techniques tailored to each high-value captive.
"The capture of a person prompted it," said the person knowledgeable about the rules set by the department. "We knew who the people were and what they had." This lawyer said that the CIA wanted guidance on harsh methods either because "they were worried or they wanted to try some different techniques."
A CIA spokesman said he would not comment on the techniques.
Zubaida was shot in the groin during his March 2002 capture, and some U.S. officials have suggested that his pain medication was manipulated in the early days of his interrogation to try to elicit information. During his initial questioning, Zubaida told interrogators what he thought they already knew and offered false leads, including one that caused an alert for a possible attack on the U.S. banking system, U.S. officials have said.
Still, much of Zubaida's information has proved valuable, officials have said, including information that led to the arrest of Jose Padilla, the U.S. citizen who allegedly planned to blow up apartment buildings in the United States.
In the months after the interrogation plan was developed for Zubaida, other specific plans -- all of them still classified -- were approved as more top al Qaeda leaders were captured, current and former Justice officials said.
The list of approved interrogation techniques for high-value captives is similar to a list approved by the Pentagon for the interrogation of al Qaeda and Taliban suspects at Guantanamo Bay, sources said. But the wet-towel technique approved for CIA use was not on the Pentagon list, they said.
These officials said that the Zubaida memo and the list of interrogation techniques were reviewed and edited by, among others, then-Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and lawyers in the criminal division, including then-division chief Michael Chertoff, now a federal appeals court judge, according to current and former Justice Department officials.
Department officials said last week that they plan to brief Congress about the contents of those classified documents and hope they would be declassified soon.
The CIA has suspended the use of extraordinary interrogation techniques on al Qaeda captives after the controversy over the language of the Office of Legal Counsel memo. Current and former CIA officers said aggressive tactics have been halted to protect interrogators while lawyers from the Justice Department review and rewrite their broad legal opinion on the limits of techniques to be used in al Qaeda interrogations -- even as authorities warn that al Qaeda is planning a major attack on the United States in the coming months.
The FBI decided early on not to participate in interrogations of al Qaeda leaders because FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III knew they could be harsh, and he feared participation by his agents could be used to impeach their testimony in future court cases, law enforcement sources said. The CIA asked the bureau for help with Zubaida in March 2002, but Mueller refused to involve his agents, they said.
All the agencies involved agreed that senior al Qaeda members taken captive were combatants outside the U.S. criminal justice system, and that they were not going to be read Miranda warnings and given lawyers. But the FBI officials worried that if the captives were subjected to harsh treatment, they could never be brought before military tribunals after they had been wrung dry of information.
"Nobody really paid attention to what would happen at the end of the day," a former law enforcement official said.
Others involved in reviewing the information gleaned from al Qaeda captives said that the urgent need to get information to protect against additional attacks guided the decision making on interrogations, which have aided in the capture of a string of senior al Qaeda operatives. These include Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohammed in Pakistan, Omar al-Farouq in Indonesia, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in Kuwait, Muhammad al Darbi in Yemen and Nurjaman Riduan Isamuddin in Thailand.
"Lots of investigations we have been able to initiate and resolve are coming from interrogations of high-value targets," said Mike Rolince, a senior FBI counterterrorism official. "Some [information] comes quickly; some takes a lot of time."