Report: White House OK'd waterboarding before checking legality

WASHINGTON -- CIA officials briefed the White House on plans to use waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and other "alternative" interrogation techniques on suspected al-Qaeda leaders in spring 2002 — months before the Justice Department provided a legal rationale for such tactics, a congressional analysis released Wednesday says.

The Senate Intelligence Committee review outlines a series of meetings between CIA officials and top administration officials in the ensuing weeks, culminating in approvals of the CIA's plan by then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and then-attorney general John Ashcroft in July 2002. Justice Department lawyers subsequently provided a memo in August that provided a legal rationale for proceeding.

President Obama released the Aug. 1, 2002, memo and three others last week.

During the same period in 2002, military officials also were investigating options for "detainee exploitation," including the adaptation of tactics used by the Pentagon to train troops how to resist torture, according to a separate report issued Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senior U.S. officials "solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality and authorized their use against detainees," the Armed Services report says. "Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies and compromised our moral authority."

Taken together, the two reports and the Justice Department memos provide the most detailed accounting to date of how CIA and military officials obtained high-level authorization to elicit information from detainees using waterboarding and other "enhanced" interrogation techniques. The approved methods also included sleep deprivation for periods of up to eight days, confinement in small spaces and open-handed slaps.

Ricardo Sanchez, a now-retired lieutenant general who led U.S. forces in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004, said in an interview Wednesday that he sought guidance from the U.S. Central Command on whether the interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were within the Geneva Conventions. Interrogators had used similar techniques in Afghanistan, he said, and they wanted to know whether they could also use them in Iraq.

Sanchez said he initially approved some of those techniques, including the use of stress positions and sleep deprivation, based on advice from the command's lawyers. He rescinded that order weeks later, he said, when it became clear that "there was no consensus" within the command. He then approved a more limited list of tactics and directed that all personnel abide by the Geneva Conventions.

Interrogators who went to Iraq from Afghanistan "had been operating under the presidential directives that the conventions didn't apply" and "anything left to the imagination of the interrogator was fair game," Sanchez said.

The Intelligence Committee's report says CIA officials briefed Rice and Ashcroft in May 2002 on plans to use waterboarding and other techniques. Other briefings followed. Then-vice president Dick Cheney attended one in July 2003.

None of those officials could be reached for comment.

The Intelligence Committee noted that its report was finished in November, but officials from the Bush administration's National Security Council resisted efforts to have it declassified. Former CIA director Michael Hayden said releasing the interrogation techniques gave terrorists a precise guide for what to expect.