WASHINGTON - Senior White House officials played a central role in deliberations in the spring of 2002 about whether the Central Intelligence Agency could legally use harsh interrogation techniques while questioning an operative of Al Qaeda, Abu Zubaydah, according to newly released documents.
In meetings during that period, the officials debated specific interrogation methods that the C.I.A. had proposed to use on Qaeda operatives held at secret C.I.A. prisons overseas, the documents show. The meetings were led by Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, and attended by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other top administration officials.
The documents provide new details about the still-murky early months of the C.I.A.'s detention program, when the agency began using a set of harsh interrogation techniques weeks before the Justice Department issued a written legal opinion in August 2002 authorizing their use. Congressional investigators have long tried to determine exactly who authorized these techniques before the legal opinion was completed.
The documents are a list of answers provided by Ms. Rice and John B. Bellinger III, the former top lawyer at the National Security Council, to detailed questions by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is investigating the abuse of detainees in American custody. The documents were provided to The New York Times by Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the committee.
ABC News first reported on the White House meetings in a broadcast earlier this year. Ms. Rice's answers to the questions shed some light on the internal deliberations among senior officials but do not present a clear picture of the positions taken by participants in the debate.
Some of the techniques proposed by the C.I.A. - including waterboarding, which induces a feeling of drowning - came from a program used by the Pentagon to train American pilots to withstand the rigors of captivity.
"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," Ms. Rice, now secretary of state, wrote in response to one question.
Still, Ms. Rice wrote that she asked Mr. Ashcroft personally to review the program and "advise N.S.C. principals whether the program was lawful."
Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on which officials attended the meetings in 2002. He said Vice President Dick Cheney often attended meetings of the National Security Council's principals committee, a group of senior officials who advise the president on national security.
The new documents do not specify dates for the White House meetings. Current and former officials have said that the C.I.A. began using harsh interrogation methods on Mr. Zubaydah in Thailand weeks before the Justice Department formally authorized the interrogation program in a secret memo dated Aug. 1, 2002.
The officials said Justice Department lawyers gave oral guidance to the C.I.A. before the secret memo was completed. But at one point during the summer of 2002, current and former intelligence officials have said, C.I.A. lawyers ordered that the use of the harsh techniques by C.I.A. personnel be suspended until they were formally authorized by the Justice Department.
Mr. Bellinger, the former National Security Council legal adviser, wrote in a separate document released on Wednesday that during the White House meetings, Justice Department lawyers frequently issued oral guidance to the C.I.A. about the interrogation program. One who did was John Yoo, the principal author of the August 2002 memo, Mr. Bellinger said.
A fierce dispute erupted between the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. during the spring and summer of 2002, as F.B.I. officials objected to the harsh treatment and ultimately withdrew from Mr. Zubaydah's interrogation.
Ms. Rice said she did "not recall any specific discussions about withdrawing F.B.I. personnel from the Abu Zubaydah interrogation."
Mr. Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said the new documents showed that top Bush administration officials were more actively engaged in the debate about the limits of lawful interrogation than the White House had previously acknowledged.
"So far, there has been little accountability at higher levels," Mr. Levin said. "Here you've got some evidence that there was discussion about those harsh techniques in the White House."