According to a former CIA official involved in the process, CIA headquarters would receive cables from operatives in the field asking for authorization for specific techniques. Agents, worried about overstepping their boundaries, would await guidance in particularly complicated cases dealing with high-value detainees, two CIA sources said.
Highly placed sources said CIA directors Tenet and later Porter Goss along with agency lawyers briefed senior advisers, including Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Powell, about detainees in CIA custody overseas.
"It kept coming up. CIA wanted us to sign off on each one every time," said one high-ranking official who asked not to be identified. "They'd say, 'We've got so and so. This is the plan.'"
Sources said that at each discussion, all the Principals present approved.
"These discussions weren't adding value," a source said. "Once you make a policy decision to go beyond what you used to do and conclude it's legal, (you should) just tell them to implement it."
Then-Attorney General Ashcroft was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.
According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."
The Principals also approved interrogations that combined different methods, pushing the limits of international law and even the Justice Department's own legal approval in the 2002 memo, sources told ABC News.
At one meeting in the summer of 2003 -- attended by Vice President Cheney, among others -- Tenet made an elaborate presentation for approval to combine several different techniques during interrogations, instead of using one method at a time, according to a highly placed administration source.
A year later, amidst the outcry over unrelated abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the controversial 2002 legal memo, which gave formal legal authorization for the CIA interrogation program of the top al Qaeda suspects, leaked to the press. A new senior official in the Justice Department, Jack Goldsmith, withdrew the legal memo -- the Golden Shield -- that authorized the program.
But the CIA had captured a new al Qaeda suspect in Asia. Sources said CIA officials that summer returned to the Principals Committee for approval to continue using certain "enhanced interrogation techniques."
Then-National Security Advisor Rice, sources said, was decisive. Despite growing policy concerns -- shared by Powell -- that the program was harming the image of the United States abroad, sources say she did not back down, telling the CIA: "This is your baby. Go do it."