Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted for the
first time that she led high-level discussions, beginning in 2002, with other
senior Bush administration officials about subjecting suspected al-Qaeda
terrorists detained at military prisons to the harsh interrogation technique
known as waterboarding, according to documents released late Wednesday by Carl
Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee.
Responding in writing to questions by Levin, who convened a
hearing Thursday on the administration�s interrogation program, John B.
Bellinger, Rice�s legal adviser at the State Department, said they recalled
participating in meetings with Ashcroft and then-Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld in July 2002 about an Army and Air Force survival training program
called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) meant to prepare U.S.
soldiers for abuse they might suffer if captured by an outlaw regime.
Bellinger, who also worked with Rice at the NSC, said the
then national security adviser �expressed concern that the proposed CIA
interrogation techniques comply with applicable U.S. law, including our international
obligations� and that Rice asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to �personally
review the legal guidance� of specific interrogation techniques.
In April, President George W. Bush told an ABC News reporter
during an interview that he approved of meetings of a National Security Council�s
Principals Committee, whose advisers included Vice President Dick Cheney,
former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, former CIA Director George Tenet
and former Attorney General John Ashcroft, where these officials discussed
specific interrogation techniques the CIA could use against detainees.
Waterboarding -- or simulated drowning -- has been regarded
as torture since the days of the Spanish Inquisition.
�I recall being told that U.S. military personnel were
subjected in training to certain physical and psychological interrogation
techniques and that these techniques had been deemed not to cause significant
physical or psychological harm,� Rice wrote in response to a question about the
But those techniques were meant to prepare U.S. soldiers for
abuse they might suffer if captured by a brutal regime, not as methods for U.S.
interrogations, which is what Rice said the discussions at the White House
centered on Moreover, the SERE methods were first designed by the communist
government of China to be used against U.S. soldiers.
The hearing Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services
Committee will focus on the genesis of the SERE techniques used during the
interrogations of suspected terrorists.
Rice has denied that the U.S. tortured or abused prisoners.
But in declaring the U.S. does not engage in torture, appears to be relying on
a narrower US definition of torture than that accepted under international law,
such as the 1984 Convention Against Torture that was signed by the Reagan
administration in 1988 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994.
�The threshold for torture is lower under international law:
acts that do not amount to torture under U.S. law may do so under international
law,� wrote Philippe Sands, law professor at University College London, in a
column published in the Dec. 9, 2005, edition of The Financial Times.
�Waterboarding -- strapping a detainee to a board and
dunking him under water so he believes that he might drown -- plainly
constitutes torture under international law, even if it may not do so under
U.S. law. . . .
�When the U.S. joined the 1984 convention it entered an
�understanding� on the definition of torture, to the effect that the
international definition was to be read as being consistent with the U.S.
definition The administration relies on the �understanding.�
�So, when Ms. Rice says the U.S. does not do torture or
render people to countries that practice torture, she does not rely on the
international definition. That is wrong: the convention does not allow each
country to adopt its own definition, otherwise the convention�s obligations
would become meaningless. That is why other governments believe the U.S.
�understanding� cannot affect U.S. obligations under the convention.�
There is ongoing debate as to whether the brutal
interrogation techniques first used against suspected terrorists predated an
Aug. 1, 2002, legal opinion, widely called the �Torture Memo,� that provided
CIA interrogators with the legal authority to use long-outlawed tactics, such
as waterboarding, when interrogating so-called high-level terrorist suspects.
Neither Rice nor Bellinger provided dates about the
discussions Rice led regarding interrogation methods. Additionally, Levin did
not ask Rice whether Bush or Cheney participated in the talks.
In his book, �At the Center of the Storm,� former CIA
Director George Tenet wrote that he attended a meeting with Rice in May 2001
where Tenet discussed how Abu Zubaydah, the alleged high-level al-Qaeda
operative, planned to attack the US and Israel.
�For my regularly scheduled meeting with Condi Rice on May
30, , I brought along [deputy CIA director] John McLaughlin, [then
director of the CIA�s counterterrorist center] Cofer Black, one of Cofer�s top
assistants, Rich B. (Rich can�t be further identified here). Joining Condi were
[former White House counterterrorism czar Richard] Clarke and [former CIA
official] Mary McCarthy,� Tenet wrote. �Rich ran through the mounting warning
signs of a coming attack. They were truly frightening. Among other things, we
told Condi that a notorious al-Qa�ida operative named Abu Zubaydah was working
on attack plans.�
Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan less than a year later
and was whisked to a secret CIA prison site in Thailand, where he was
interrogated and subjected to waterboarding -- believed to have taken place
sometime in July 2002 based on the discussions about interrogation methods Rice
participated in with other White House officials.
FBI officials objected to the methods CIA interrogators used
against Abu Zubaydah, according to previously released documents and testimony.
However, Rice wrote in response to a question from Levin
that she did �not recall any specific discussions about withdrawing FBI
personnel from the Abu Zubaydah interrogation.�
The Abu Zubaydah case was the first time that waterboarding
was used against a prisoner in the �war on terror,� according to Pentagon and
Justice Department documents, news reports and several books written about the
Bush administration�s interrogation methods.
In his book �The One Percent Doctrine,� author Ron Suskind
reported that President George W. Bush had become obsessed with Zubaydah and
the information he might have about pending terrorist plots against the United
�Bush was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the
truth,� Suskind wrote. Bush questioned one CIA briefer, �Do some of these harsh
methods really work?�
The waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah was videotaped, but that
record was destroyed in November 2005 after the Washington Post published a
story that exposed the CIA�s use of so-called �black site� prisons overseas to
interrogate terror suspects.
John Durham, an assistant US attorney in Connecticut, was
appointed special counsel earlier this year to investigate the destruction of
that videotape as well as destroyed film on other interrogations.
The latest disclosures by Rice undercut assertions by
President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and other senior
administration officials who have blamed cruel treatment of detainees on �a few
bad apples� who acted on their own.
In June, Levin released dozens of pages of documents that
detailed a pattern of humiliation, abuse and even torture inflicted on
detainees was a deliberate policy of the Bush administration -- debated by
mid-level lawyers at the CIA and the Pentagon, given legal cover at the Justice
Department and approved at the highest levels of government.
The Armed Services Committee�s 18-month investigation, which
generated 38,000 pages of documents, singled out Rumsfeld and William �Jim�
Haynes II, the Pentagon�s former general counsel, as the officials who sought
guidance on implementing more aggressive interrogation methods.
The committee is expected to release a full report later
this year. So far, the probe has found that Rumsfeld and Haynes solicited input
from military psychologists in July 2002, months earlier than they had
previously acknowledged, about developing harsh methods interrogators could use
against detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
The documents Levin released in June states that as early as
July 2002, Rumsfeld, Haynes and other officials queried military psychologists
about the use of waterboarding and other brutal methods to extract information
that might not be gained through more conventional interrogations methods.
The questions from Rumsfeld and Haynes were raised one month
before John Yoo, a deputy in the Justice Department�s Office of Legal Counsel,
issued two memos that authorized interrogators to use stress positions,
military dogs and other still unknown methods against terror suspects at
Bellinger said, in a separate memo to Levin, that Yoo
participated in the meetings led by Rice and gave the CIA oral guidance on
The June documents did not square with previous statements
made by Haynes, who testified in 2006 that the impetus for the harsh tactics
came from below, from lower-level military personnel who asked the Pentagon in
October 2002 about using more aggressive techniques against detainees.
Richard Shiffrin, Haynes� former deputy on intelligence
issues, told the Senate committee that in July 2002 Haynes became interested in
using the SERE techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, as a
form of interrogation against detainees.
According to one document, Jonathan Fredman, chief counsel
to the CIA�s Counterterrorism Center, discussed with U.S. military officials
how interrogators could use the �wet towel� technique, also known as
waterboarding, against detainees to extract information.
�It can feel like you�re drowning. The lymphatic system will
react as if you�re suffocating, but your body will not cease to function,�
Fredman said on Oct. 2, 2002, during a meeting where specific techniques were
reviewed and debated, according to the meeting�s minutes.
Fredman added that the �wet towel� technique would only be
defined as torture �if the detainee dies.�
�It is basically subject to perception,� Fredman said. �If
the detainee dies you�re doing it wrong.�
Leopold is the author of �News Junkie,� a memoir. Visit
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