WASHINGTON — Release of Bush-era documents that shed more light on the origins of the CIA's use of harsh interrogation tactics has ignited a backstage battle between former Bush officials over a crucial May 2002 meeting that paved the way for use of waterboarding on a suspected al-Qaida leader.
The fracas over who was responsible for authorizing use of the simulated drowning tactic and other harsh techniques on captured suspect Abu Zubayda is raising new questions about that 2002 decision and follow-up moves that allowed the CIA to use the now-banned techniques.
Some former Bush officials argue that they were not properly warned by CIA officials about the potential perils of the severe methods, while others insist there were explicit cautions.
A former senior Bush administration official familiar with the deliberations said that during a meeting of Bush senior officials in May 2002, then-CIA director George Tenet, backed by agency lawyers and CIA officers, reassured former NSC director Condoleezza Rice, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and others that waterboarding and other harsh techniques were both safe and necessary.
The former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's continuing sensitivity, said Tenet and other CIA officials did not mention the techniques' potential legal and physical dangers.
Tenet was not available for comment Saturday. Rice and other former Bush administration principals involved in or aware of the May 2002 meeting have not responded to efforts by the AP to obtain comment in recent days.
Rice told the Senate Armed Services Committee last fall that she and other senior Bush officials were told that the harsh interrogation methods would not cause significant psychological or physical harm.
But a former senior intelligence official also aware of the internal 2002 discussions disputed that account. He dismissed the charge that Tenet had presented the harsh methods to the NSC as the only possible option. The intelligence official, who also spoke with anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the CIA had insisted on having the program legally reviewed to be sure it comported both with U.S. law and policy.
The intelligence official noted that senior policymakers and lawyers were responsible for fully evaluating the potential impacts of the CIA proposal.
A Senate Armed Service Committee report released last week said that along with Tenet, Rice and Ashcroft, others attending the critical May 2002 session were then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, former NSC deputy adviser Stephen Hadley and John Bellinger, then-legal adviser to the NSC.
The report was followed by the Senate Intelligence Committee release of a documents that revealed Rice's July 2002 authorization to the CIA to use waterboarding against Zubayda. The report came after President Barack Obama's recent decision to issue Bush-era legal memos justifying the use of harsh questioning techniques. Those methods have been criticized as torture.
After Rice provided the critical authorization, formal legal approval for Zubayda's waterboarding came a few days later in an Aug. 1, 2002, Justice Department memo. That memo was among the documents released by Obama, who has insisted that the U.S. will not torture, but also said he will not press for legal charges against CIA officials or a special congressional investigation.
Days after that, the waterboarding of Abu Zubayda began. He would undergo the technique, now deemed torture by Attorney General Eric Holder, 83 times that month.
The CIA adapted the proposed methods from those used in military survival school, which conducts intense mock interrogations to prepare armed forces personnel for possible capture. The Joint Personnel Recovery Agency trained CIA officers in the methods in the spring of 2002. The methods are drawn from American prisoners of war real-life experiences at the hands of Communist Chinese, North Korean and Vietnamese interrogators.
Almost simultaneously to the NSC's decision to approve harsh interrogations, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency had sent a memo to the Pentagon's general counsel's office outlining the methods that would come to be used in CIA interrogations, including waterboarding, slamming detainees into walls, stress positions, and dousing detainees with cold water.
The memo said the methods "may be very effective in inducing learned helplessness and 'breaking'" detainees' "will to resist."
But in a separate attachment, the training officials told Pentagon lawyers that harsh physical techniques could backfire by making prisoners more resistant. They also said that if the use physical methods on prisoners were discovered, the public and political backlash would be "intolerable."
The attachments were included in the Senate Armed Services Committee's release of documents and in a fuller copy obtained Saturday by the AP.
They also warned that harsh techniques cast into doubt the reliability of the information gleaned during the interrogation.
"A subject in extreme pain may provide an answer, any answer or many answers in order to get the pain to stop," the training officials said in their memo.
The attachment also discussed the fact that using extreme physical and psychological coercion — with the word extreme underlined to differentiate from the methods used in survival training — would constitute torture.
It is unclear whether Rice, Tenet or others on the NSC or at the CIA saw that memo and its warnings against using extreme methods.
Some Democrats in Congress are pressing for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the interrogation program, which could lead to prosecutions for violations of anti-torture laws.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee in September 2002, said she was not informed back then that the CIA methods had been used on prisoners.
But former CIA Director Porter Goss disputed that Saturday in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. Goss was at the time chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and received the same briefings.
Goss wrote he was "slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as 'waterboarding' were never mentioned."