October 16, 2008
WASHINGTON: The Bush administration issued a pair of secret memos to the CIA in 2003 and 2004 that explicitly endorsed the agency's use of harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding against al-Qa'ida suspects, a report said yesterday.
The documents were prompted by worries among intelligence officials about a possible backlash if details of the program became public, The Washington Post reported.
The classified memos, which have not been previously disclosed, were requested by then CIA director George Tenet more than a year after the start of the secret interrogations, the paper said.
Although Justice Department lawyers, beginning in 2002, had signed off on the agency's interrogation methods, senior CIA officials were troubled that White House policymakers had never endorsed the program in writing, the report said.
The memos were the first -- and, for years, the only -- tangible expressions of the administration's consent for the CIA's use of harsh measures to extract information from captured al-Qa'ida leaders, sources told the paper.
As early as the spring of 2002, several White House officials, including then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice-President Dick Cheney, were given individual briefings by Mr Tenet and his deputies, the sources said.
The repeated requests for a paper trail reflected growing worries within the CIA that the administration might later distance itself from key decisions about the handling of captured al-Qa'ida leaders, former intelligence officials told the Post.
The concerns grew after revelations of the mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and further still as tensions mounted between the administration and its intelligence advisers over the conduct of the Iraq war.
Mr Tenet pressed the White House for written approval in June 2003, during a meeting with members of the National Security Council, the officials said. Days later, he got a brief memo conveying the administration's approval for the CIA's interrogation methods, the officials told the paper.
Administration officials confirmed the existence of the memos, but neither they nor former intelligence officers would describe their contents in detail because they remain classified, the paper said.
As recently as last month, the administration had never publicly acknowledged its policymakers knew about the specific techniques, such as waterboarding, that the agency used against high-ranking terrorism suspects.
The report said the CIA's anxiety was partly fuelled by the lack of explicit presidential authorisation for the interrogation program. A secret White House "memorandum of notification" signed by US President George W. Bush on September 15, 2001, gave the agency broad authority to wage war against al-Qa'ida, including killing and capturing its members. But it did not spell out how captives should be handled during interrogation.
But by the time the CIA requested written approval of its policy, in June 2003, the population of its secret prisons had grown from one to nine, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged principal architect of the 9/11 attacks. Three of the detainees had been subjected to waterboarding, which involves strapping a prisoner to a board, covering his face and pouring water over his nose and mouth to simulate drowning.