White House fought curbs on interrogations
By Douglas Jehl and David Johnston-
The New York Times-Washington
At the urging of the White House, Congressional leaders scrapped a legislative measure last month that would have imposed new restrictions on the use of extreme interrogation measure by American intelligence officers, Congressional officials say.
The defeat of the proposal affects one of the most obscure arenas of the war on terrorism, involving the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret detention and interrogation of top terrorleaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept.11 attacks, and about three dozen other senior members of Al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
The Senate had approved the new restrictions, by a 96-to-2 vote, as part of the intelligence reform legislation. They would have explicitly extended to intelligence officers a prohibition against torture or inhumane treatment, and would have required the CIA as well as the Pentagon to report to Congress about the methods they were using.
But in intense closed-door negotiations, Congressional officials said, four senior members from the House and Senate deleted the restrictions from the final bill after the White House expressed opposition.
In a letter to members of Congress, sent in October and made available by the White House on Wednesday in response to inquiries, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, expressed oppositon to the measure on the grounds that it “provides legal protections to foreign prisoners to which they are not now entitled under applicable law policy.”
Earlier, in objecting to a similar measure in a Senate version of the military authorization bill, the Defense Department “strongly urges the Senate against passing new legislation concerning detention and interrogation the war on terrorism” because it is unnecessary.
The Senate restrictions had not been in House versions of the military or intelligence bills.
In interviews on Wednesday, both Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican negotiator, and Representative Jane Harman of California, a Democratic negotiator, said the lawmakers had ultimately decided that the question of whether to extend the restrictions to intelligence officers was too complex to be included in the legislation.
“The conferees agreed that they would drop the language but with the caveat that the intelligence committees would take up the issue this year,” Collins said.
Harman siad, “If there are special circumstances around some intelligence interrogations, we should understand that before we legislate.”
Some Democratic Congressional officials said they believed that the Bush administration was trying to maintain some legal latitude for the CIA to use interrogation practices more extreme than those permitted by the military.
In its report last summer, the independent commission on the Sept.11 attacks recommended that the United States develop policies to guarantee that captured terrorists were treated humanely.
Martin Lederman, a former Justice Department lawyer who left the department in 2002, said in an interview on Wednesday that he believed that the administration had “always wanted to leave a loophole where the CIA could engage in acitons just up to the line of torture.”
The administration has said almost nothing about the CIA operation to imprison and question terror suspects designated as high-value detainees, even as it has expressed disgust about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Senior officials have sought in recent public statements to emphasize that the government will continue to abide by federal laws that prohibit torture.At his confirmation hearing last week on his nomination to be attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales said he found torture abhorrent.
The issue of the CIA’s treatment of detainees first arose after agency officails sought legal guidance on how far its employees and contractors could go in interrogating terror suspects and whether the law barred the CIA from using whether the law barred the CIA from using extreme methods, including feigned drowning, in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the first of the Qaeda leaders captured by the United States. He was apprehended in Pakistan in early 2002.
An August 2002 legal opinion by the Justice Department said that interrogation methods just short of those that might cause pain comparable to “organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death” could be allowable without being considered torture. The administration disavowed that opinion last summer after the classified legal opinion was publicly disclosed.
A new opinion made public late last month, signed by James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, explicitly rerjected torture and adopted more restrictive standards to difine it.
But a cryptic footnote to the new document about the “treatment of detainees” referred to what the officials said were other still-classified opinions.
The footnote meant, the officials said, that coercive techniques approved by the Justice Department under the looser interpretation of the torture statues were still lawful even under the new, more restrcitive interpretation.
Current and former government officials said specific interrogation methods were addressed in a series of still-secret documents, including an August 2002 one by the Justice Department that authorized the CIA’s use of some 20 interrogation practices. The legal opinion was sent to the CIA via the National Security Council at the White House.