Thanks to ABC News and the AP’s follow-up yesterday, we now have a very good idea of how the U.S. began to torture detainees in early 2002, even before the Justice Department had officially blessed the techniques by way of the infamous August, 2002 memo by John Yoo.
ABC reported earlier this week that certain brutal interrogation techniques were approved by the National Security Council’s Principals Committee following Abu Zubaydah’s capture in March, 2002. Among the members of that council were Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and it was chaired by Condoleezza Rice, then the National Security Advisor.
The question was what CIA interrogators could do to Zubaydah and by extension other high value detainees. (It’s worth recalling what FBI agents say about what information Zubaydah ultimately provided.) The obvious background to all this is that the CIA interrogators did not want to later find themselves prosecuted for using torture. So everything got this high-level sign off, down to the smallest detail, according to the AP:
At times, CIA officers would demonstrate some of the tactics, or at least detail how they worked, to make sure the small group of “principals” fully understood what the al-Qaida detainees would undergo.
At the same time, John Yoo and colleagues at the Justice Department were busy working on a clear legal authorization for all of this.
He described the pressure of the situation last week to Esquire:
Yoo: The interrogation question came up, I think, in March, when Abu Zubaydah was captured. Thatâs what provoked that question….
Esquire: You werenât under extraordinary time pressure?
Yoo: We were under time pressure.
Esquire: Days, weeks?
Yoo: The final version we didnât get done till August. But we would show drafts before.
Esquire: They were taking action?
Yoo: They needed to have a sense before it was finalized what the basic outlines are.
Esquire: How long did it take to give an answer, go ahead do it?
Yoo: I donât remember.
Esquire: Weeks, months?
Yoo: Probably weeks.
Esquire: So thatâs a fair amount of time pressure, Zubaydahâs in custody.
Yoo: If you had the luxury of time, youâd spend years on this, without a doubt.
Esquire: What concerns came up, back and forth with the White House?
Yoo: There wasnât a lot of back and forth — people would say this is wrong, you need to delete this. I think that there was no pressure from any other agency from within the department that the opinion was going too far — or that it wasnât going far enough. It was very much hands off. That doesnât surprise me considering how sensitive the issue was, people wanted the office I think to take the full responsibility.
The memo that emerged, the so-called Bybee memo, after the then-chief of the Office of Legal Counsel who signed off on it (even though Yoo, the deputy, actually authored it ), was just what the doctor ordered, the “Golden Shield,” as it was called, for the CIA’s interrogations. The Office of Legal Counsel, remember, has the power to effectively issue “advance pardons” for activity of dubious legality.
ABC quotes a source as saying that Ashcroft at one point asked aloud after one Principals meeting, “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.” Nevertheless, Ashcroft did sign off on Yoo’s “Golden Shield,” a memo that was later withdrawn by Jack Goldsmith after he took over at OLC. Goldsmith has called that memo “slapdash” and deeply flawed.
But the “Golden Shield” did not end the Principals meetings. ABC reports that the CIA was still nervous and still returned again and again for approval from the Principals Committee for the OK for certain “enhanced interrogation” techniques even after Goldsmith had withdrawn the Bybee memo:
But the CIA had captured a new al Qaeda suspect in Asia. Sources said CIA officials that summer returned to the Principals Committee for approval to continue using certain “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Then-National Security Advisor Rice, sources said, was decisive. Despite growing policy concerns — shared by Powell — that the program was harming the image of the United States abroad, sources say she did not back down, telling the CIA: “This is your baby. Go do it.”