Eric Holder today declassified a confidential Senate report that provides a more detailed narrative of the role top Bush officials, including Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, and the president himself, played in approving interrogation methods.
The torture scandal became even more explosive on Wednesday with Attorney General Eric Holder’s quiet approval of the release of a bombshell Senate Intelligence Committee report to provide “an initial narrative of the history of the opinions of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, from 2002 to 2007, on the legality of the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program.”
The report makes clear that many of the key discussions about interrogation took place months before the White House prepared legal memos “authorizing” those techniques.
The report conclusively confirms that senior members of the Bush administration were personally briefed and approved the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques in 2002 and again in 2003, which as previously reported included waterboarding, prolonged sleep deprivation, throwing detainees into walls, and placing them in small boxes with insects, among other abuses.
One key passage, with bracketed names added by The Daily Beast, documents those directly involved in the decision-making:
“[The] CIA’s Office of General Counsel [this would include current Acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo] met with the Attorney General [John Ashcroft], the National Security Adviser [Condoleezza Rice], the Deputy National Security Adviser [Stephen Hadley], the Legal Adviser to the National Security Council [John Bellinger], and the Counsel to the President [Alberto Gonzales] in mid-May 2002 to discuss the possible use of alternative interrogation methods [on Abu Zubaydah] that differed from the traditional methods used by the U.S. military and intelligence community. At this meeting, the CIA proposed particular alternative interrogation methods, including waterboarding.”
The report continues to implicate more Bush officials:
“On July 13, 2002, according to CIA records, attorneys from the CIA’s Office of General Counsel [including Rizzo] met with the Legal Adviser to the National Security Council [Bellinger], a Deputy Assistant Attorney General from OLC [likely John Yoo], the head of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice [Michael Chertoff], the chief of staff to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation [Kenneth Wainstein], and the Counsel to the President [Alberto Gonzales] to provide an overview of the proposed interrogation plan for Abu Zubaydah.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee “narrative” directly points to then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in particular as the person who gave the first approval for the use of torture techniques on behalf of the White House: “On July 17, 2002, according to CIA records, the Director of Central Intelligence [George Tenet] met with the National Security Adviser [Condoleezza Rice], who advised that the CIA could proceed with its proposed interrogation of Abu Zubaydah.”
The report confirms earlier reporting by ABC News. It also adds important details about how the CIA obtained a “reaffirmation” of the approved interrogation techniques in 2003 and later in 2004.
On and on the report goes, naming Bush people in those meetings:
“In the spring of 2003, the DCI [Tenet] asked for a reaffirmation of the policies and practices in the interrogation program. In July 2003, according to CIA records, the NSC Principals met to discuss the interrogation techniques employed in the CIA program. According to CIA records, the DCI and the CIA’s General Counsel attended a meeting with the Vice President [Dick Cheney], the National Security Adviser [Rice], the Attorney General [Ashcroft], the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General, the Counsel to the President [Gonzales, again], and the Legal Adviser to the National Security Council [Bellinger, again] to describe the CIA’s interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. According to CIA records, at the conclusion of that meeting, the Principals reaffirmed that the CIA program was lawful and reflected administration policy.”
The last clause is notable for two reasons. Not only does it implicate all of the principals in the authorization of techniques amounting to torture, but it also clarifies the complicity of President George W. Bush, underlining that the decision was administration policy, the policy of the president.
Several other key points:
It is important to note that the content here is not reportage by the media, but a Senate report, declassified by a letter from a sitting attorney general of the United States, factually documenting the involvement of key Bush administration officials in the approval of CIA torture techniques.
The report makes clear that many of the key discussions about interrogation took place months before the White House prepared legal memos “authorizing” those techniques. Since it is known that the CIA began some aggressive interrogations of the first CIA detainee, Abu Zubaydah, before those memos were provided, the context strongly suggests that the CIA and White House sought the OLC memos as a way of authorizing not only what they wanted to do, but also what they were already doing without cover of legal opinion or sanction.
The report confirms that CIA officials were central in pushing for the use of the techniques, contradicting an oft-repeated CIA version of events in which officials were just dutiful servants following orders from the Bush White House. Read in conjunction with the Bush Justice Department Office of Legal Council memos released last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee report appears even more disturbing. It is now known—from the memos themselves—that the OLC’s legal reasoning was based in large part on now discredited information from the CIA, including faulty assessments of detainees’ rank and importance, incorrect psychological assessments of the detainees, and deeply inaccurate portrayals of research into the mental effects of the treatment.
The Senate report further explains that members of the Principals Group, Condoleezza Rice in particular, were involved in authorizing the techniques and driving the CIA to use them. This narrative—especially the facts about Rice—cuts against a version of events peddled by her aides (like her former State Department counsel John Bellinger), who have suggested that they were not involved in meetings involving the approval of CIA torture techniques. On Tuesday night, on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, former Rice aide Philip Zelikow tried to minimize Rice’s involvement in the CIA program.
The Senate report is certain to increase the calls for accountability, since it leaves little doubt of complicity at the highest levels of the Bush White House and CIA. President Obama appears to be increasingly drawn either to allow a full congressional investigation or allow the attorney general to appoint an independent investigator, or both.
John Sifton is a private investigator and attorney based in New York City. His firm, One World Research, carries out research for law firms and human rights groups, including in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. He has conducted extensive investigations into the CIA interrogation and detention program.