04:32 - Source: CNN
Fmr. Bush official slams torture report

Story highlights

CIA interrogations hit road bump over prison black sites

Agency argued losing tough methods would mean 'extensive' loss of life

Episode reveals details about how much George W. Bush knew and when

New details from the Senate torture report conflict with testimony from Bush

Washington CNN  — 

A decade ago, when word started getting out in Washington that the CIA conducted brutal interrogations, the program had already hit a major speed bump inside the Bush administration over whether the White House really knew what was going on at the secret “black site” prisons overseas.

The problem was the White House’s repeated claim that the United States doesn’t torture and the administration officials’ use of the term “humane” when publicly describing treatment of U.S. terrorist detainees.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA program released Tuesday describes a tense period in June and July 2003 when CIA officials scrambled for “reaffirmation” that the White House supported its “enhanced interrogation” techniques of al Qaeda suspects that critics say equate to torture.

The period is especially important to a deeper understanding what senior officials, including President George W. Bush, knew about the program and whether he was indeed left in the dark about it up until April 2006, as the Senate report says.

From the evidence cited in the report, it appears senior CIA officials were under the impression that Bush did not know in-depth details about the program. But accounts by former Bush administration officials and the former President’s own testimony in his memoir appear to contradict that idea.

Senate investigators didn’t have access to White House documents.

Back in July 2003, the report suggests, the CIA was concerned that the White House could decide to rule out the use of harsh interrogation techniques including waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

On July 29 of that year, according to the report, the agency told the White House that the use of the “techniques has produced significant results.”

CIA briefers told a meeting that included top national security officials including Vice President Dick Cheney that “termination of this program will result in loss of life, possibly extensive,” the report says, citing CIA documents.

The backstory to this is that earlier in the year, then CIA General Counsel Scott Muller expressed concern to national security, White House and Justice Department officials that the CIA’s treatment of detainees might not fit with the administration’s statements that the U.S. treats prisoners “humanely,” the report says. He also sought to verify that a presidential memo requiring the U.S. military to treat detainees humanely didn’t apply to the CIA, the report says.

After this discussion, the report says, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was told to avoid using the term “humane treatment” when discussing al Qaeda and Taliban detainees.

After the White House reassured senators that the U.S. was complying with constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners in July 2003, the CIA temporarily stopped using “enhanced interrogation techniques” while it sought clarification from the White House.

Fleischer, then White House press secretary, says he doesn’t remember that specific prohibition.

“I do specifically remember being instructed not to say that the prisoners were covered by the Geneva conventions, but instead to say they were treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions,” he told CNN.

The difference is a legal one, he noted. Al Qaeda prisoners weren’t uniformed soldiers, they were unlawful combatants under U.S. policy. Therefore officials didn’t believe the Geneva Conventions covered them.

Fleischer says the Senate report’s portrayal of Bush being in the dark is inaccurate and “out of context.” Presidents don’t necessarily know all the details of any program, he says.

“It’s the equivalent of presidents picking out bombing targets,” he says. “That’s not how any chief executive should run things.”

Another former senior Bush administration official told CNN officials never specifically briefed the president on details of the program but there’s no doubt the President learned about them over time.

On June 26, 2003, President Bush issued a statement for the United Nations Day in Support of the Victims of Torture. The statement said in part: “the United States is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example.”

The following day John Rizzo, former then CIA deputy general counsel, called National Security Council legal adviser John Bellinger. According to an account of the call based on Rizzo’s email to other CIA officials, Rizzo called to “express our surprise and concern at some of the statements attributed to the administration” in a Washington Post article based on the statement.

On July 3, 2003, then CIA chief George Tenet sent a memo to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to seek “reaffirmation” that the White House still supported what the CIA was doing.

“Recent administration response to inquiries and resulting media reporting about the administration’s position have created the impression that these techniques are not used by U.S. personnel and are no longer approved as a policy matter.”

The report suggests that the CIA at least believed that the President did not learn the full extent of what was going on until April 2006.

When he was told: “the president expressed discomfort with the image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself,” the report said.

Rizzo told CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” on Tuesday that he had personally never met the President to brief him on the program but he could not say whether other senior White House officials, who he said were aware of the details of the program, had done so.

The Senate report seems to conflict with Bush’s own accounting of whether he knew about key details of the enhanced interrogation program.

In his memoir “Decision Points” Bush says he directed the Justice Department to review a list of interrogation techniques to use on Abu Zubaydeh, an al Qaeda suspect captured in Pakistan in March 2002.

He said he saw a list of those methods, but felt that two of them, which he did not describe, went too far. But Bush did say that he approved the use of water boarding.

Bush also writes that Tenet asked him in 2003 whether the CIA was authorized to use enhanced interrogation techniques, including water boarding on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

“Damn right,” Bush said he told Tenet, and wrote that he was thinking at that moment about the widow of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl who was beheaded by Mohammed, as well as victims of al Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington.

While accounts by Bush and the intelligence committee seem to conflict, it is possible that the President was not made aware of the full extent of the CIA’s use of the enhanced interrogation techniques on other prisoners — at least formally.

Former senior Bush administration officials who could shed light on exactly what the President knew about the CIA program, like Rice and her former deputy Stephen Hadley were not available to comment.

But the report, citing CIA documents, suggests that if Bush did not know about the full extent of torture operations it was not for want of efforts by the agency.

In July 2002, the Senate report says the CIA anticipated it would need approval from the President before enhanced interrogation techniques could be used and prepared talking points for a briefing.

But those notes were never used, and in August, the CIA was told by a top aide to Rice that she had been informed “there would be no briefing of the President on this matter, but that (Tenet) had policy approval to employ the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Tenet told the agency’s office of Inspector General in August 2003 that he had never talked to the President about enhanced interrogation techniques and was not aware Bush had been briefed by his staff, the report said.

While the report suggests Bush was not aware of the full extent of the enhanced interrogation techniques, it says his senior subordinates were.

But not all were brought into the loop in the early stages.

The report says that the White House directed that the secretaries of state and defense Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld were not briefed until September 2003.

It noted an internal CIA email which predicted that the White House was concerned “Powell would blow his stack” when he learned the details.