The Bush administration issued a pair of secret memos to the CIA in 2003 and 2004 that explicitly endorsed the agency's use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques against al-Qaida suspects – documents prompted by worries among intelligence officials about a possible backlash if details of the program became public.
The classified memos, which have not been previously disclosed, were requested by then-CIA Director George Tenet more than a year after the start of the secret interrogations, according to four administration and intelligence officials familiar with the documents.
Although Justice Department lawyers, beginning in 2002, had signed off on the agency's interrogation methods, senior CIA officials were troubled that White House policymakers had never endorsed the program in writing.
The memos were the first tangible expressions of the administration's consent for the CIA's use of harsh measures to extract information from captured al-Qaida leaders, the sources said. As early as the spring of 2002, several White House officials, including then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, were given individual briefing by Tenet and his deputies, the officials said. Rice, in a statement to congressional investigators two weeks ago, confirmed the briefings and acknowledged that the CIA director had pressed the White House for “policy approval.”
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The repeated requests for a paper trail reflected growing worries within the agency that the administration might later distance itself from key decisions about the handling of captured al-Qaida leaders, former intelligence officials said.
The concerns grew more pronounced following the revelations over mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and still further as tensions grew between the administration and its intelligence advisors over the conduct of the Iraq war.
“It came up in the daily meetings. We heard it from our field officers,” said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the events. “We were already worried that we” were going to get blamed.
Tenet first pressed the White House for written approval in June 2003, during a meeting with members of the National Security Council, including Rice, the officials said. Days later, he got what he wanted: a brief memo conveying the administration's approval for the agency's interrogation methods, the officials said. Administration officials confirmed the existence of the memos, but neither they nor former intelligence officers would detail their contents because they remain classified.
The second request from Tenet, in June 2004, reflected growing worries among agency officials who had just witnessed the public outcry over the Abu Ghraib scandal. Officials who held senior posts at the time also spoke of deteriorating relations between the CIA and the White House over the war in Iraq — a rift that prompted some to believe that the agency needed even more explicit proof of the administration's support.
As recently as last month, the administration had never publicly acknowledged that its policymakers knew about the specific techniques, such as waterboarding, that the agency used against high-ranking terror suspects. In her unprecedented account to lawmakers two weeks ago, Rice, now secretary of state, portrayed the White House as initially uneasy about a controversial CIA plan for interrogating top al-Qaida suspects.
Current and former intelligence officials described Tenet as supportive of enhanced interrogation techniques, which the officials said were developed by CIA officers after the agency's first high-level captive, al-Qaida operative Abu Zubadayeh, refused to cooperate with interrogators.
“The CIA believed then, and now, that the program was useful and helped save lives,” said a former senior intelligence official knowledgeable about the events. “But in the agency's view, it was like this: We don't want to continue unless you tell us in writing that it's not only legal but is the policy of the administration.”
One administration official familiar with the meetings said the CIA made such a convincing case that no one questioned whether the methods were necessary to prevent further terrorist attacks.