WASHINGTON - Former vice president Richard B. Cheney personally oversaw at least four briefings with senior members of Congress about the controversial interrogation program, part of a secretive and forceful defense he mounted throughout 2005 in an effort to maintain support for the harsh techniques used on detainees.
The Cheney-led briefings came at some of the most critical moments for the program, as congressional oversight committees were threatening to investigate or even terminate the techniques, according to lawmakers, congressional officials, and current and former intelligence officials.
Cheney's role in helping handle intelligence issues in the Bush administration -- particularly his advocacy for the use of aggressive methods and warrantless wiretapping against alleged terrorists -- has been well documented. But his hands-on role in defending the interrogation program to lawmakers has not been previously publicized.
The CIA made no mention of his role in documents delivered to Capitol Hill last month that listed every lawmaker who had been briefed on "enhanced interrogation techniques" since 2002. For meetings that were overseen by Cheney, the agency told the intelligence committees that information about who oversaw those briefings was "not available."
The revelations do not shed light on whether top Democrats, as Republicans contend, were aware that waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, was being used on terrorism suspects as early as the fall of 2002. That discussion has dominated Capitol Hill since last month, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was not present at any of the briefings that included Cheney, accused the agency of intentionally misleading her in a 2002 briefing about the use of waterboarding.
An official who witnessed one of Cheney's briefing sessions with lawmakers said the vice president's presence appeared calculated to give additional heft to the CIA's case for maintaining the program. Cheney left it to the professional briefers to outline the interrogation practices, while he mounted an impassioned defense of the program.
"This is a really important issue for the security of the United States," the official recalled Cheney saying.
The CIA declined to comment on why Cheney's presence in some meetings was left out of the records. One senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the identities of individual briefers are intentionally concealed in all cases -- their names do not appear in any of the CIA documents that describe congressional briefings. In at least some cases, he added, the identity of the briefer was never recorded in the agency's internal records.
For all but seven of the 40 meetings listed, however, the documents outlined which agency led the briefing and which provided support. And on at least five occasions, they spelled out that then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden led the classified meetings.
Since leaving office in January, Cheney has mounted a vigorous public defense of the interrogation practices. Speaking at the National Press Club on Monday, he said CIA officials approached the White House in 2002 with the request to use harsher techniques such as waterboarding.
"We all approved it. I'm a strong believer in it. I think it was the right thing to do," said Cheney, who is now pushing for the declassification of the information gained from the detainees who were subjected to the most brutal techniques.
Several members of Congress who took part in the Cheney meetings declined to comment on them, citing secrecy concerns. But there was little doubt that he was leading the charge on the issue.
"His office was ground zero. It was his office you dealt with at the end of the day," recalled Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who jousted with Cheney over the system of interrogations.
One of the most critical Cheney-led briefings came in late October 2005, when the vice president and Porter J. Goss, then director of the CIA, read Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) into the program on the interrogation methods, according to congressional and intelligence sources.
One knowledgeable official described the meeting as contentious. Cheney and Goss, with other CIA officials present, tried to persuade the former Vietnam POW to back off an anti-torture amendment that had already won the support of 90 senators.
The McCain amendment would have ended practices such as waterboarding by forbidding "cruel, degrading and inhumane" treatment of detainees. The CIA had not used waterboarding since 2003, but the White House sought to maintain the ability to employ it.
In the meetings with lawmakers, Cheney was adamant that the enhanced interrogations were needed to preserve national security, according to two participants. He advocated briefing more lawmakers about the program, against the wishes of National Security Council officials who sought to inform only the top members of the intelligence committees.
Lawmakers at times challenged Cheney and CIA officials about the legality of the program and pressed for specific results that would show whether the techniques worked. In response, the CIA briefers said that half of the agency's knowledge about al-Qaeda's plans and structure had been obtained through the interrogations.
Before the McCain briefing, Cheney met with a friendlier audience, his longtime friends Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who oversaw the Pentagon's annual spending bill, to which the McCain amendment was attached. Cochran said yesterday that it was the first time he had been given a full description of what waterboarding entailed.
"I found the conversation with the vice president to be very candid, straightforward, helpful," Cochran said.
CIA records indicate that another briefing -- for which the briefer's name is "not available" -- was given to Senate GOP leaders on Nov. 1, 2005. That was the same day Cheney made a regular appearance at the weekly Tuesday luncheon for Senate Republicans. Cheney usually engaged only in brief, quiet asides with senators at the lunches. But at this meeting -- the day before The Washington Post published a detailed account of the CIA's secret overseas prison system -- Cheney rose to speak, and the room was cleared of all staff.
He discussed the value of the interrogation program and the information gleaned by using the harsh techniques, according to numerous contemporaneous media accounts.
Cheney's briefings on interrogations began in the winter of 2005 as the top Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees, Sen. John D. Rockefeller III (W.Va.) and Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), publicly advocated a full-scale investigation of the tactics used against top al-Qaeda suspects.
On March 8, 2005 -- two days after a detailed report in the New York Times about interrogations -- Cheney gathered Rockefeller, Harman and the chairmen of the intelligence panels, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), according to current and former intelligence officials. Weeks earlier, Roberts had given public statements suggesting possible support for the investigation sought by Rockefeller. But by early March 2005, Roberts announced that he opposed a separate probe, and the matter soon died.
Cheney's efforts to sway Congress toward supporting waterboarding went beyond secret meetings in Washington. In July 2005, he sent David S. Addington, his chief counsel at the time, to travel with five senators -- four of them opponents of the CIA interrogation methods -- to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On the trip, Sen. Graham urged Addington to put the interrogations at secret prisons and the use of military tribunals into a stronger constitutional position by pushing legislation through Congress, rather than relying on executive orders and secret rulings from Justice Department lawyers.
Subsequent court rulings would challenge the legality of the system, and Justice Department lawyers were privately drafting new rules on interrogations. Addington dismissed the views of Graham, who had been a military lawyer.
"I've got all the authority I need right here," Addington said, pulling from his coat a pocket-size copy of the Constitution, according to the senator, suggesting there was no doubt about the system's legal footing.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.