To date, members of the National Security Council's Principals Committee who have spoken publicly about the Bush administration's interrogation program have insisted the tough tactics did not violate legal prohibitions against mistreatment of detainees. The so-called "principals" who participated in the meetings are senior Bush officials who approved interrogation techniques to use on terrorist suspects who proved difficult to "break," sources said.
On Dec. 19, 2005, Vice President Cheney told ABC, "I can say that we, in fact, are consistent with the commitments of the United States that we don't engage in torture, and we don't."
Three months later, on March 16, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed that theme in a speech in Sydney, Australia: "I want to emphasize and underscore, because the president made very clear from day one that he would not condone torture."
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has taken issue with some of the legal reasoning contained in the 50-page 2002 Department of Justice memo authorizing the CIA program, but he has not publicly criticized the interrogation program itself.
That memo contends the administration did not have to comply with some protections for detainees contained in the Geneva Conventions — a position Powell did not share. After the memo leaked, in a June 13, 2004, front-page story in The Washington Post, Powell appeared on ABC'S "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."
He said, "I haven't seen the analysis, but this is what I do know. The president believes that he was bound by international obligations ... and his instructions to us consistently were to follow our obligations under international treaties and other constraints that applied to our activities."
Two weeks later, in a June 27 appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation," Powell told host Bob Schieffer he had not seen that memo before it leaked.
"If this is the Justice Department memo that you're referring to ... the 50-page memo, no, I did not see it," Powell said. "I think it was internal to the Justice Department and parts of the White House but was not distributed interagency for comment."
Sources confirmed Powell's account and said they would not expect high-ranking national security advisers to read detailed legal memos, since those top officials would be focused on the bottom-line advice from the attorney general that the program was, in fact, legal.
The memo was formally replaced in December 2004 by a different legal opinion that did not make the same argument about the Geneva Conventions. But in a footnote, that new memo also said the techniques used by the CIA were not illegal.
In his book "War By Other Means: An Insider's Account of the War on Terror," John Yoo, the deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel who was the main author of the 2002 memo, said of the new 2004 memo:
"The 2004 opinion included a footnote to say that all interrogation methods that earlier opinions had found legal were still legal. In other words, the differences in the opinion were for appearances' sake," Yoo wrote. "In the real world of interrogation policy, nothing had changed. The new opinion just reread the statute to deliberately blur the interpretation of torture as a short-term political maneuver in response to pubic criticism."
Aside from the legal reasoning about the Geneva Conventions in that 2002 memo, Powell has not publicly criticized the interrogation program itself. He has contended that, from the very beginning, President Bush was committed to following the Geneva Conventions, despite whatever legal arguments Justice Department lawyers were making that they did not necessarily apply to the al Qaeda suspects.
The Detainee Treatment Act, passed by Congress in 2005, limits military interrogators to using techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual. But the law does not restrict CIA interrogators from using harsher tactics, like waterboarding.
Even though the CIA said it had not used waterboarding since 2003 on terror suspects, the Justice Department still contended that the CIA's use of the technique would not be illegal.