Four former CIA directors opposed the release of classified Bush-era interrogation memos, officials say, describing objections that went all the way to the White House and slowed disclosure of the records. Former CIA chiefs Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, George Tenet and John Deutch all called the White House in March warning that release of the so-called “torture memos” would compromise intelligence operations, current and former officials say.
President Barack Obama ultimately overruled the objections after internal discussions that intensified in the weeks that followed the former directors’ intervention. The memos were released on Thursday.
Mr Obama’s involvement grew as the decision neared, and he even led a National Security Council session on the matter, four senior administration officials said. White House adviser David Axelrod, who said he also talked to Mr Obama about the pending release of the memos in recent weeks, said the ex-directors’ opposition was considered seriously but did not impede the decision-making process. “The CIA directors weighed in and it slowed things down,” Mr Axelrod said on Friday.
The memos detailed the legal rationales that senior Bush administration lawyers drew up authorising the CIA to use simulated drowning and other harsh techniques on terror suspects. They described how prisoners were naked, shackled and hooded at the start of interrogation sessions. When the CIA interrogator removed the hood, the questioning began. When a prisoner resisted, the documents outlined techniques the CIA could use to bring him back in line:
* Nudity, sleep deprivation and dietary restrictions kept prisoners compliant and reminded them they had no control over their basic needs. Clothes and food could be used as rewards for co-operation.
* Slapping prisoners on the face or abdomen was allowed. So was grabbing them forcefully by the collar or slamming them into a false wall, a technique called “walling” intended to induce fear rather than pain.
* Water hoses were used to douse the prisoners for minutes at a time. The hoses were turned on and off as the interrogation continued.
* Prisoners were put into one of three “stress positions”, such as sitting on the floor with legs out straight and arms raised in the air.
* At night, the detainees were shackled, standing naked or wearing a nappy. The length of sleep deprivation varied but was authorised for up to 180 hours, or seven and a half days. Interrogation sessions ranged from 30 minutes to several hours and could be repeated as necessary, and as approved by psychological and medical teams.
The Bush administration approved the use of waterboarding, a technique in which a suspect was strapped to a board, his feet raised above his head, and his face covered with a wet cloth as interrogators poured water over it. The body responds as if it is drowning, over and over as the process is repeated. “We find that the use of the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death,” Justice Department attorneys wrote. “From the vantage point of any reasonable person undergoing this procedure in such circumstances, he would feel as if he is drowning at the very moment of the procedure due to the uncontrollable physiological sensation he is experiencing.”
But attorneys decided that waterboarding caused “no pain or actual harm whatsoever” and so did not meet the “severe pain and suffering” standard to be considered torture.
President Obama has ended the CIA’s interrogation programme. CIA interrogators are now required to follow army guidelines, under which waterboarding and many of the techniques listed above are prohibited.
The President gave the question of these documents’ release “the appropriate reflection”, Mr Axelrod said. He said Mr Obama’s deliberations revolved around “the issue of national security versus the rule of law”, and amounted to “one of the most profound issues the President of the United States has to deal with”.
On 18 March, the Justice Department told the Director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, as he was leaving for a foreign trip, that it would be recommending that the White House release the memos almost completely uncensored, officials said. Mr Panetta told the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, and officials in the White House that the administration needed to discuss the possibility that the memos’ release might expose CIA officers to lawsuits on allegations of torture and abuse. Mr Panetta also pushed for more censorship of the memos, officials said. The Justice Department informed other senior CIA leaders of the decision to release the memos and, as a courtesy, told former agency directors.
Senior CIA officials objected, arguing that the release would damage the agency’s ability to interrogate prisoners. They also said the move would tarnish CIA officers who had acted on the Bush officials’ legal guidance. And they warned that the action would erode foreign intelligence services’ trust in the CIA’s ability to protect national security secrets. The four former directors immediately protested to the White House, officials said. The enhanced interrogation procedures outlined in the memos had been approved on Mr Tenet’s watch during the Bush administration.
On 19 March, the Justice Department requested a two-week delay in responding to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that asked for release of the memos. Justice officials told the court dealing with that lawsuit that it was considering releasing the memos voluntarily. Two weeks later, Justice Department lawyers told the court the memos would come out on or before 16 April.
Inside the White House, according to aides, Mr Obama expressed concerns that releasing the memos could threaten current intelligence operations as well as US officials. He also echoed the CIA chiefs’ worries about US relationships with always-skittish foreign intelligence services. The Justice Department argued that the ACLU lawsuit would in the end force the administration to release the documents anyway, officials said.
Mr Obama eventually agreed. The administration decided it would be better to make the release voluntarily, so as not to be seen as being forced to do so, the officials said. The only items blacked out included names of US employees or foreign services or items related to techniques still in use. Still, CIA officials needed reassurance about the decision, the officials said.
Mr Obama took the unusual step of accompanying his decision with a personal letter to CIA employees. He also devoted a big share of his public statement to saying and repeating that he believed strongly in keeping intelligence operations secret, and operations about them classified. He said he would not apologise for doing so in the future
What the memos reveal
The Bush administration memos describe the interrogation methods used against 28 terror suspects, the fullest government account of the techniques to date. They range from waterboarding – or simulated drowning – to using a plastic neck collar to slam detainees into walls. The treatment of two suspects in particular are described:
Abu Zubaydah In 2002, the Justice Department authorised CIA interrogators to step up the pressure even further on the suspected terrorist. Justice Department lawyers said the CIA could place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box. Because Zubaydah appeared afraid of insects, they also authorised interrogators to place him in a box filled with caterpillars (though the tactic was not in fact used). Finally, the Justice Department authorised interrogators to take a step into what the United States now considers torture: waterboarding. Zubaydah was strapped to a board, his feet raised above his head. His face was covered with a wet cloth as interrogators poured water over it.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed A memo dated 30 May 2005 says that before the harsher methods were used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a top al-Qa’ida detainee, he refused to answer questions about pending plots against the US. “Soon, you will know,” he said, according to the memo. It says the interrogations later extracted details of a plot called the “second wave”, using East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner in Los Angeles. Plots that were disrupted, the memos say, include the alleged effort by Jose Padilla to detonate a “dirty bomb”, spreading radioactive materials by means of explosives.