WASHINGTON (AFP) — The CIA first sought in May 2002 to use harsh interrogation techniques including waterboarding on terror suspects, and was given key early approval by then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a US Senate intelligence document said.
The agency got the green light to use the near-drowning technique on July 26, 2002, when attorney general John Ashcroft concluded “that the use of waterboarding was lawful,” the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a detailed timeline of the “war on terrorism” interrogations released Wednesday.
Nine days earlier, the panel said, citing Central Intelligence Agency records, Rice had met with then-director George Tenet and “advised that the CIA could proceed with its proposed interrogation of Abu Zubaydah,” the agency’s first high-value Al-Qaeda detainee, pending Justice Department approval.
Rice’s nod is believed to be the earliest known approval by a senior official in the administration of George W. Bush of the intelligence technique which current Attorney General Eric Holder has decried as “torture.”
The Senate panel narrative is the most comprehensive declassified chronology to date of the Bush administration’s support for the highly controversial tactics.
According to the Senate narrative, Rice was among at least half a dozen top Bush officials, including vice president Dick Cheney, who were in 2002 or 2003 debating, approving or reaffirming the legality of the interrogation practices used on Zubaydah and two other terror suspects.
After a July 2003 meeting in which Tenet briefed Rice, Cheney, Ashcroft, then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and others on the use of waterboarding and other interrogation methods, “the principals reaffirmed that the CIA program was lawful and reflected administration policy,” according to the panel report.
The revelations come amid a raging controversy over whether President Barack Obama would seek prosecutions of Bush officials who devised legal cover for the interrogation tactics.
Last week Obama blew the lid on harsh CIA terror interrogations approved by Bush by releasing four so-called “torture memos” prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that detailed the tactics, including waterboarding as well as the use of insects and sleep deprivation.
Obama said operatives who carried out the interrogations would not be prosecuted, saying they acted on orders and were defending their country.
The CIA had asked to be able to waterboard Zubaydah, a Saudi-born Palestinian whose real name is Zayn Al Abidin Muhammad Husayn, fearing he was withholding information about “imminent” terrorist attacks, the panel said.
The committee did not wade into the growing controversy over whether so-called “enhanced interrogation” methods used on Zubaydah — who was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002 — yielded solid information.
US forces captured Zubaydah in a late March 2002 firefight in Pakistan, tended to his serious injuries, and began to question him, according to the timeline.
The agency asked senior officials in Washington, including Rice, in mid-May 2002 to discuss the possibility of using methods, including waterboarding, that were rougher than traditional interrogation methods.
The CIA made the request because it “believed that Abu Zubaydah was withholding imminent threat information during the initial interrogation sessions.”
The US Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel orally advised the CIA on July 26, 2002, “that the use of waterboarding was lawful,” a finding it put in writing on August 1, 2002, the timeline said.
A US congressman, Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, spoke out Thursday in an opinion piece against Obama’s decision to release details of the enhanced interrogation techniques, saying “members of Congress from both parties have been fully aware of them since the program began in 2002.”
“We believed it was something that had to be done in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (of 2001) to keep our nation safe,” Republican Hoekstra wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
“After many long and contentious debates, Congress repeatedly approved and funded this program on a bipartisan basis in both Republican and Democratic Congresses.”