NY Times: Severe interrogation techniques are 'hidden legacy' of Gonzales tenure at Justice
(Updated: White House denies New York Times report)
A secret opinion issued by the Department of Justice in 2005 authorized a vast expansion of interrogation techniques available to the CIA, including painful remedies incorporating simulated drowning, "head-slapping" and exposure to frigid temperatures.
According to the New York Times, the legal memorandum was issued soon after the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General, and permitted the "combined effects" of an array of harsh measures to gather intelligence.
White House press secretary Dana Perino, however, denied that report today.
"This country does not torture," she told reporters, according to the Associated Press. "It is a policy of the United States that we do not torture and we do not."
"Asked about the story Thursday, Perino confirmed existence of the Feb. 5, 2005, classified opinion but would not comment on whether it authorized specific practices, such as head-slapping and simulated drowning," AP continued. "She said the 2005 opinion did not reinterpret the law."
Perino insisted the 2005 memo was not inconsistent with a 2004 opinion from the Justice Department declaring torture "abhorrent."
"We know that these are ruthless individuals who will do anything, and that they're very patient; that they'll do anything to try to carry out their attacks," Perino said. "And this president has put in place -- all within the foursquare corners of the law -- tools in the global war on terror that we need."
Sources also told the Times that later in 2005, with Congress poised to pass a a so-called "torture ban" prohibiting "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of detainees, the Justice Department quietly issued a second opinion that "declared that none of the CIA interrogation methods violated that standard."
Perino, who admitted she hadn't personally seen the classified opinions, was asked how, in that case, she could "say with assurance that we don't torture."
"Because we follow the law," Perino responded.
The New York Times interviewed "more than two dozen current and former officials involved in counterterrorism," most of whom the paper says would only speak anonymously.
Steven Bradbury, however, the head of the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel who signed off on the opinions in question, went on the record defending his office's work, and emphasized the Department's independence from the Bush administration.
"In my experience, the White House has not told me how an opinion should come out,” he told the paper. "The White House has accepted and respected our opinions, even when they didn’t like the advice being given.”
Although a 2006 Supreme Court ruling found that Al Qaeda detainees must be afforded rights under the Geneva conventions, President Bush this July signed an executive order allowing for "enhanced" interrogation procedures, and officials tell the Times that "the CIA again is holding prisoners in 'black sites' overseas."
"The Bush administration had entered uncharted legal territory beginning in 2002, holding prisoners outside the scrutiny of the International Red Cross and subjecting them to harrowing pressure tactics," the story continues, and quotes former CIA deputy legal counsel Paul Kelbaugh as saying that even interrogators themselves questioned the legality of the techniques they were employing.
“We were getting asked about combinations -- ‘Can we do this and this at the same time?" he said. “These approved techniques, say, withholding food, and 50-degree temperature -- can they be combined... Do I have to do the less extreme before the more extreme?" he recalls being asked.
Sources also disclosed to the Times that when Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured that "a variety of tough interrogation tactics were used about 100 times over two weeks on Mr. Mohammed."
"Agency officials then ordered a halt," intelligence officials said, "fearing the combined assault might have amounted to illegal torture."
When a new head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, arrived in 2003 -- replacing former chief John Yoo, who sources said was privately referred to by former Attorney General John Ashcroft as "Dr. Yes" for his easy compliance with White House wishes -- the Bush administration began to encounter resistance.
"Mr. Goldsmith infuriated White House officials," according to the New York Times, "first by rejecting part of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, prompting the threat of mass resignations by top Justice Department officials, including Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Comey, and a showdown at the attorney general’s hospital bedside."
"If President Bush wanted to make sure the Justice Department did not rebel again, Mr. Gonzales was the ideal choice," the paper said of the Attorney General to be.
Goldsmith's successor, Bradbury, would go on to authorize the classified opinions, which the Times called "a hidden legacy of President Bush’s second term and Mr. Gonzales’s tenure at the Justice Department."
The following video clips are from MSNBC's Morning Joe and CNN's American Morning, broadcast on October 4, 2007.
In the following video, White House spokesman Dana Perino denies that the classified legal memo was used to authorize torture.
This video is from The Associated Press, broadcast on October 4, 2007.