In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.
Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.
"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.
Congressional leaders from both parties would later seize on waterboarding as a symbol of the worst excesses of the Bush administration's counterterrorism effort. The CIA last week admitted that videotape of an interrogation of one of the waterboarded detainees was destroyed in 2005 against the advice of Justice Department and White House officials, provoking allegations that its actions were illegal and the destruction was a coverup.
Yet long before "waterboarding" entered the public discourse, the CIA gave key legislative overseers about 30 private briefings, some of which included descriptions of that technique and other harsh interrogation methods, according to interviews with multiple U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge.
With one known exception, no formal objections were raised by the lawmakers briefed about the harsh methods during the two years in which waterboarding was employed, from 2002 to 2003, said Democrats and Republicans with direct knowledge of the matter. The lawmakers who held oversight roles during the period included Pelosi and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), as well as Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan).
Individual lawmakers' recollections of the early briefings varied dramatically, but officials present during the meetings described the reaction as mostly quiet acquiescence, if not outright support. "Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing," said Goss, who chaired the House intelligence committee from 1997 to 2004 and then served as CIA director from 2004 to 2006. "And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement."
Congressional officials say the groups' ability to challenge the practices was hampered by strict rules of secrecy that prohibited them from being able to take notes or consult legal experts or members of their own staffs. And while various officials have described the briefings as detailed and graphic, it is unclear precisely what members were told about waterboarding and how it is conducted. Several officials familiar with the briefings also recalled that the meetings were marked by an atmosphere of deep concern about the possibility of an imminent terrorist attack.
"In fairness, the environment was different then because we were closer to Sept. 11 and people were still in a panic," said one U.S. official present during the early briefings. "But there was no objecting, no hand-wringing. The attitude was, 'We don't care what you do to those guys as long as you get the information you need to protect the American people.' "
Only after information about the practice began to leak in news accounts in 2005 -- by which time the CIA had already abandoned waterboarding -- did doubts about its legality among individual lawmakers evolve into more widespread dissent. The opposition reached a boiling point this past October, when Democratic lawmakers condemned the practice during Michael B. Mukasey's confirmation hearings for attorney general.
GOP lawmakers and Bush administration officials have previously said members of Congress were well informed and were supportive of the CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques. But the details of who in Congress knew what, and when, about waterboarding -- a form of simulated drowning that is the most extreme and widely condemned interrogation technique -- have not previously been disclosed.
U.S. law requires the CIA to inform Congress of covert activities and allows the briefings to be limited in certain highly sensitive cases to a "Gang of Eight," including the four top congressional leaders of both parties as well as the four senior intelligence committee members. In this case, most briefings about detainee programs were limited to the "Gang of Four," the top Republican and Democrat on the two committees. A few staff members were permitted to attend some of the briefings.
That decision reflected the White House's decision that the "enhanced interrogation" program would be treated as one of the nation's top secrets for fear of warning al-Qaeda members about what they might expect, said U.S. officials familiar with the decision. Critics have since said the administration's motivation was at least partly to hide from view an embarrassing practice that the CIA considered vital but outsiders would almost certainly condemn as abhorrent.
Information about the use of waterboarding nonetheless began to seep out after a furious internal debate among military lawyers and policymakers over its legality and morality. Once it became public, other members of Congress -- beyond the four that interacted regularly with the CIA on its most sensitive activities -- insisted on being briefed on it, and the circle of those in the know widened.
In September 2006, the CIA for the first time briefed all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, producing some heated exchanges with CIA officials, including Director Michael V. Hayden. The CIA director said during a television interview two months ago that he had informed congressional overseers of "all aspects of the detention and interrogation program." He said the "rich dialogue" with Congress led him to propose a new interrogation program that President Bush formally announced over the summer
"I can't describe that program to you," Hayden said. "But I would suggest to you that it would be wrong to assume that the program of the past is necessarily the program moving forward into the future."
Waterboarding Used on at Least 3
Waterboarding as an interrogation technique has its roots in some of history's worst totalitarian nations, from Nazi Germany and the Spanish Inquisition to North Korea and Iraq. In the United States, the technique was first used five decades ago as a training tool to give U.S. troops a realistic sense of what they could expect if captured by the Soviet Union or the armies of Southeast Asia. The U.S. military has officially regarded the tactic as torture since the Spanish-American War.
In general, the technique involves strapping a prisoner to a board or other flat surface, and then raising his feet above the level of his head. A cloth is then placed over the subject's mouth and nose, and water is poured over his face to make the prisoner believe he is drowning.
U.S. officials knowledgeable about the CIA's use of the technique say it was used on three individuals -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; Zayn Abidin Muhammed Hussein Abu Zubaida, a senior al-Qaeda member and Osama bin Laden associate captured in Pakistan in March 2002; and a third detainee who has not been publicly identified.
Abu Zubaida, the first of the "high-value" detainees in CIA custody, was subjected to harsh interrogation methods beginning in spring 2002 after he refused to cooperate with questioners, the officials said. CIA briefers gave the four intelligence committee members limited information about Abu Zubaida's detention in spring 2002, but offered a more detailed account of its interrogation practices in September of that year, said officials with direct knowledge of the briefings.
The CIA provided another briefing the following month, and then about 28 additional briefings over five years, said three U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge of the meetings. During these sessions, the agency provided information about the techniques it was using as well as the information it collected.
Lawmakers have varied recollections about the topics covered in the briefings.
Graham said he has no memory of ever being told about waterboarding or other harsh tactics. Graham left the Senate intelligence committee in January 2003, and was replaced by Rockefeller. "Personally, I was unaware of it, so I couldn't object," Graham said in an interview. He said he now believes the techniques constituted torture and were illegal.
Pelosi declined to comment directly on her reaction to the classified briefings. But a congressional source familiar with Pelosi's position on the matter said the California lawmaker did recall discussions about enhanced interrogation. The source said Pelosi recalls that techniques described by the CIA were still in the planning stage -- they had been designed and cleared with agency lawyers but not yet put in practice -- and acknowledged that Pelosi did not raise objections at the time.
Harman, who replaced Pelosi as the committee's top Democrat in January 2003, disclosed Friday that she filed a classified letter to the CIA in February of that year as an official protest about the interrogation program. Harman said she had been prevented from publicly discussing the letter or the CIA's program because of strict rules of secrecy.
"When you serve on intelligence committee you sign a second oath -- one of secrecy," she said. "I was briefed, but the information was closely held to just the Gang of Four. I was not free to disclose anything."
Roberts declined to comment on his participation in the briefings. Rockefeller also declined to talk about the briefings, but the West Virginia Democrat's public statements show him leading the push in 2005 for expanded congressional oversight and an investigation of CIA interrogation practices. "I proposed without success, both in committee and on the Senate floor, that the committee undertake an investigation of the CIA's detention and interrogation activities," Rockefeller said in a statement Friday.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Vietnam War prisoner who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, took an early interest in the program even though he was not a member of the intelligence committee, and spoke out against waterboarding in private conversations with White House officials in late 2005 before denouncing it publicly.
In May 2007, four months after Democrats regained control of Congress and well after the CIA had forsworn further waterboarding, four senators submitted written objections to the CIA's use of that tactic and other, still unspecified "enhanced" techniques in two classified letters to Hayden last spring, shortly after receiving a classified hearing on the topic. One letter was sent on May 1 by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). A similar letter was sent May 10 by a bipartisan group of three senators: Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
In a rare public statement last month that broached the subject of his classified objections, Feingold complained about administration claims of congressional support, saying that it was "not the case" that lawmakers briefed on the CIA's program "have approved it or consented to it."
Staff writers Josh White and Walter Pincus and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company