Interrogation Debate Sharply Divided Bush White House
WASHINGTON — The proclamation that President George W. Bush issued on June 26, 2003, to mark the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture seemed innocuous, one of dozens of high-minded statements published and duly ignored each year.
The United States is “committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example,” Mr. Bush declared, vowing to prosecute torture and to prevent “other cruel and unusual punishment.”
But inside the Central Intelligence Agency, the statement set off alarms. The agency’s top lawyer, Scott W. Muller, called the White House to complain. The statement by the president could unnerve the C.I.A. interrogators Mr. Bush had authorized to use brutal tactics on members of Al Qaeda, Mr. Muller said, raising fears that political winds could change and make them scapegoats.
White House officials reaffirmed their support for the C.I.A. methods. But the exchange was a harbinger of the conflict between the coercive interrogations and the United States’ historical stance against torture that would deeply divide the Bush administration and ultimately undo the program.
The aftershocks of the interrogation policy continue. President Obama’s recent decision to release Bush administration legal memorandums on interrogation and to fend off calls for a broad investigation has only fueled debate over the efficacy, legality and morality of what was done. Just last week, bloggers seized upon a new video clip of Condoleezza Rice, a former secretary of state, sharply defending the program to a Stanford undergraduate and saying nothing about the bitter internal arguments that accompanied the demise of the program.
Most news accounts of the C.I.A. program have focused on how it was approved and operated. This is the story of its unraveling, based on interviews with more than a dozen former Bush administration officials. They insisted on anonymity because they feared being enmeshed in future investigations or public controversy, but they shed new light on the battle about the C.I.A. methods that grew passionate in Mr. Bush’s second term.
The consensus of top administration officials about the C.I.A. interrogation program, which they had approved without debate or dissent in 2002, began to fall apart the next year.
Acutely aware that the agency would be blamed if the policies lost political support, nervous C.I.A. officials began to curb its practices much earlier than most Americans know: no one was waterboarded after March 2003, and coercive interrogation methods were shelved altogether in 2005.
Yet even as interrogation methods were scaled back, former officials now say, the battle inside the Bush administration over which ones should be permitted only grew hotter. There would be a tense phone call over the program’s future during the 2005 Christmas holidays from Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, to Porter J. Goss, the C.I.A. director; a White House showdown the next year between Ms. Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney; and Ms. Rice’s refusal in 2007 to endorse the executive order with which Mr. Bush sought to revive the C.I.A. program.
The real trouble began on May 7, 2004, the day the C.I.A. inspector general, John L. Helgerson, completed a devastating report. In thousands of pages, it challenged the legality of some interrogation methods, found that interrogators were exceeding the rules imposed by the Justice Department and questioned the effectiveness of the entire program.
C.I.A. officials had sold the interrogation program to the White House. Now, the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, knew that the inspector general’s report could be a noose for White House officials to hang the C.I.A. Mr. Tenet ordered a temporary halt to the harshest interrogation methods.
The report landed on the desks of some White House officials who were already having their doubts about the wisdom of the C.I.A.’s harsh methods. John B. Bellinger III, who, as the National Security Council’s top lawyer, played a role in discussions when the program was approved in 2002, by the next year had begun to research past ill-fated British and Israeli use of torture and grew doubtful about the wisdom of the techniques.
Mr. Bellinger shared his doubts with his boss, Ms. Rice, then the national security adviser, who began to reconsider her strong support for the program.
If the inspector general’s report was a body blow to the C.I.A. program, the bill passed by Congress the next year was a knockout punch. Provoked by the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and pushed by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who had been tortured by the North Vietnamese, the 2005 bill banned cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Top C.I.A. officials then feared that the agency’s methods could actually be illegal. Mr. Goss, who had succeeded Mr. Tenet at the C.I.A., wrote a memorandum to the White House saying the agency would carry out no harsh interrogations without new Justice Department approval.
The national security adviser, Mr. Hadley, was angered by the C.I.A.’s response. He called Mr. Goss at home over the Christmas holidays to complain; Mr. Goss, backed by his lawyers, would not budge. Mr. Hadley decided he could not push the C.I.A. to do what it thought might be illegal.
Nobody knew it then, but the C.I.A.’s fateful experiment in harsh interrogation was over. The “enhanced” interrogation, already scaled back, would not be used again.
But Bush administration officials could not agree about what to do with the agency’s prisoners. Already, disclosures of secret prisons in Eastern Europe had prompted the C.I.A. to fly many in a hurry to Afghanistan.
Mr. Cheney led those who argued that publicly acknowledging the detainees would reveal secrets and expose the program to exaggerated accusations of torture.
Ms. Rice, on the other hand, advocated moving the 14 remaining detainees in C.I.A. custody to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Only by publicly admitting that the United States had held the prisoners could Mr. Bush end what critics called the “disappearing” of terrorism suspects, she told colleagues.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales proposed a middle ground: move the detainees to Guantánamo but never acknowledge having held them in secret prisons. This proposal, lampooned by some officials as the “immaculate conception” option, was dismissed as unrealistic.
After a tense meeting in the White House’s grand Roosevelt Room in summer 2006, Mr. Cheney lost the argument to Ms. Rice. Within days the C.I.A. prisoners were loaded onto a C-17 cargo plane and taken to Cuba.
Still, Mr. Cheney and top C.I.A. officials fought to revive the program. Steven G. Bradbury, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and author of the recently declassified 2005 memorandums authorizing harsh C.I.A interrogations, began drafting another memorandum in late 2006 to restore legal approval for harsh interrogation. Mr. Bradbury noted that Congress, despite the public controversy, had left it to the White House to set the limits.
Early drafts of the memorandum, circulated through the White House, the C.I.A. and the State Department, shocked some officials. Just months after the Supreme Court had declared that the Geneva Convention applied to Al Qaeda, the new Bradbury memorandum gave its blessing to almost every technique, except waterboarding, that the C.I.A. had used since 2002.
Forced as secretary of state to defend the C.I.A. program before angry European allies, Ms. Rice and her aides argued that it had outlived its usefulness.
In February 2007, Mr. Bellinger wrote to the Justice Department challenging Mr. Bradbury’s position. He called Mr. Bradbury’s memorandum a “work of advocacy” that gave a twisted interpretation of the Geneva Conventions and told colleagues he might resign.
When Mr. Bush finally reauthorized C.I.A. interrogations with an executive order in July 2007, it reflected the yearlong lobbying of Mr. Bellinger and Ms. Rice: forced nudity was banned, and guidelines for sleep deprivation were tighter.
But Mr. Cheney and his allies secured other victories. The executive order preserved the secret jails and authorized a laundry list of coercive methods. Ms. Rice, several officials say, declined to endorse the order but chose not to block it.
When Mr. Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, the C.I.A. still maintained a network of empty jails overseas, where interrogators were still authorized to use physical pressure. Within 48 hours, he banned the methods.
Finally, last month, the program that had been the source of so many vigorous fights in Washington’s power corridors met a prosaic end.
Leon E. Panetta, the new C.I.A. chief, terminated the agency’s contracts providing the security and maintenance for the prisons, emphasizing the economic benefits. Closing the C.I.A. prisons, Mr. Panetta said, would save taxpayers $4 million.Source