Condoleezza Rice, John D. Ashcroft and other top Bush administration officials approved as early as the summer of 2002 the CIA's use at secret prisons of harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, a technique that new Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has described as illegal torture, according to a chronology prepared by the Senate intelligence committee and declassified by Holder.
At a time when the Justice Department is deciding whether former officials who set interrogation policy or formulated the legal justifications for it should be investigated for possible crimes, the timeline lists at least a dozen members of the Bush administration who were present when the CIA's director or others explained exactly which questioning techniques were to be used and how those sessions proceeded.
Rice gave a key early green light when, as President George W. Bush's national security adviser, she met on July 17, 2002, with the CIA's then-director, George J. Tenet, and "advised that the CIA could proceed with its proposed interrogation of Abu Zubaida," subject to approval by the Justice Department, according to the timeline.
Abu Zubaida, a Saudi-born Palestinian whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. He was the first high-value detainee in CIA custody, and the agency believed that the al-Qaeda associate was "withholding imminent threat information," according to the timeline.
Rice and four other administration officials were first briefed in May 2002 on "alternative interrogation methods, including waterboarding," the timeline shows. Waterboarding is a technique that simulates drowning.
A year later, in July 2003, the CIA briefed Rice, Vice President Richard B. Cheney, Attorney General Ashcroft, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and National Security Council legal adviser John B. Bellinger III on the use of waterboarding and other methods, the timeline states. They "reaffirmed that the CIA program was lawful and reflected administration policy."
"This was not an abstract discussion. These were very detailed and specific conversations," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. "And it's further evidence of the role that senior administration officials had."
At that point, the United States had also captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, who was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003, according to recently released Justice Department documents.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were not briefed on the program until September 2003, the narrative shows. "Strikingly, unless there is a further story in records not yet shown to us, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense were not involved in the decision-making process, despite the high stakes for U.S. foreign policy and for the treatment of the U.S. military," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.).
Reached in California, Bellinger declined to comment. Attempts to contact Ashcroft and Tenet through spokespeople were unsuccessful. Rice did not respond to an e-mail, and a spokesman for Gonzales declined to comment. The CIA also declined to comment.
"This chronology is misleading and incomplete and does not reflect the NSC review process or the information presented to the NSC," said a former White House official involved in the deliberations.
Cheney has said repeatedly that the CIA program was legal and critical in breaking up a series of planned terrorist attacks. He has called on the Obama administration to declassify memos examining the effectiveness of the interrogation policies he supported.
In the fall of 2002, four senior members of Congress, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), now speaker of the House, were secretly briefed on interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, according to U.S. officials. Pelosi has confirmed that she was then "briefed on interrogation techniques the administration was considering using in the future. The administration advised that legal counsel for both the CIA and the Justice Department had concluded that the techniques were legal."
In early 2004, a comprehensive report by the CIA inspector general raised new questions about the program, including queries about the waterboarding of three detainees. It said the interrogations were not clearly legal under an international treaty the United States had signed known as the Convention Against Torture, which bars cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that falls short of torture.
A fresh legal review by the Justice Department prompted Ashcroft to inform the CIA in writing on July 22, 2004, that its interrogation methods — except waterboarding — were legal. The following month, the head of the department's Office of Legal Counsel added that even waterboarding would be legal if it were carried out with a series of safeguards according to CIA plans. By May 2005, the department had completed two more reviews of the program that came to the same conclusion. Those were among the memos President Obama released last week.
After the leak in 2005 of a Justice Department memo that narrowly defined the type of activity that would constitute torture, Rice traveled to Europe in an effort to quell the international uproar. As her trip was getting underway, she said: "The United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees. Torture, and conspiracy to commit torture, are crimes under U.S. law, wherever they may occur in the world."
Rice also said at the time that the administration's policy "will be consistent" with the international convention prohibiting "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." A former aide said that gaining administration approval for Rice to make this statement was "a move forward."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.