The discussions and meetings occurred in an atmosphere of great concern that another terror attack on the nation was imminent. Sources said the extraordinary involvement of the senior advisers in the grim details of exactly how individual interrogations would be conducted showed how seriously officials took the al Qaeda threat.
It started after the CIA captured top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in spring 2002 in Faisalabad, Pakistan. When his safe house was raided by Pakistani security forces along with FBI and CIA agents, Zubaydah was shot three times during the gun battle.
At a time when virtually all counterterrorist professionals viewed another attack as imminent -- and with information on al Qaeda scarce -- the detention of Zubaydah was seen as a potentially critical breakthrough.
Zubaydah was taken to the local hospital, where CIA agent John Kiriakou, who helped coordinate Zubaydah's capture, was ordered to remain at the wounded captive's side at all times. "I ripped up a sheet and tied him to the bed," Kiriakou said.
But after Zubaydah recovered from his wounds at a secret CIA prison in Thailand, he was uncooperative.
"I told him I had heard he was being a jerk," Kiriakou recalled. "I said, 'These guys can make it easy on you or they can make it hard.' It was after that he became defiant."
The CIA wanted to use more aggressive -- and physical -- methods to get information.
The agency briefed high-level officials in the National Security Council's Principals Committee, led by then-National Security Advisor Rice and including then-Attorney General Ashcroft, which then signed off on the plan, sources said. It is unclear whether anyone on the committee objected to the CIA's plans for Zubaydah.
The CIA has confirmed Zubaydah was one of three al Qaeda suspects subjected to waterboarding.
After he was waterboarded, officials say Zubaydah gave up valuable information that led to the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammad and fellow 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh.
Mohammad was also subjected to waterboarding by the CIA. At a hearing before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay on March 10, 2007, KSM, as he is known, said he broke under the harsh interrogation.
COURT: Were any statements you made as the result of any of the treatment that you received during that time frame from 2003 to 2006? Did you make those statements because of the treatment you receive from these people?
KSM: Statement for whom?
COURT: To any of these interrogators.
KSM: CIA peoples. Yes. At the beginning, when they transferred me...
Lawyers in the Justice Department had written a classified memo, which was extensively reviewed, that gave formal legal authority to government interrogators to use the "enhanced" questioning tactics on suspected terrorist prisoners. The August 2002 memo, signed by then head of the Office of Legal Counsel Jay Bybee, was referred to as the so-called "Golden Shield" for CIA agents, who worried they would be held liable if the harsh interrogations became public.
Old hands in the intelligence community remembered vividly how past covert operations, from the Vietnam War-era "Phoenix Program" of assassinations of Viet Cong to the Iran-Contra arms sales of the 1980s were painted as the work of a "rogue agency" out of control.