CIA Report Leaves Open Questions About White House Knowledge

The blockbuster report on CIA interrogation practices after 9/11 from the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed reports and answered scores of lingering questions about the Bush-era policies. But the report doesn’t provide a definitive accounting of exactly what detail White House staff knew about the program, and when they knew it.

Former President George W. Bush has written that he was aware of the CIA’s activities, but the report contends that details about the enhanced interrogations were kept from him. Other White House officials were at least told that intelligence officials felt a meeting would have been appropriate.

The failure to identify those officials or why they objected is a rare spot of opacity in a report that backers hail as a victory for government transparency about a controversial program.

“Releasing this report is an important step to restore our values and show the world that we are, in fact, a just and lawful society,” Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Tuesday.

In a lengthy response to the Senate committee’s work, the CIA said that “briefings did occur for those the White House determined had a need to know.” The agency said it also provided briefings to congressional overseers that included concerns from its inspector general about the interrogations.

The Senate report found that in 2002, the CIA prepared talking points to brief Bush on the interrogations, feeling that it would need the president’s authorization to move forward. The talking points “included a brief description of the waterboard interrogation technique.” That waterboarding language was removed, based on feedback from then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales.

A month after the CIA began its work on the talking points, the National Security Council’s legal adviser told the FBI that there would be no presidential briefing. The report does not say who in the White House made that decision. Then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was “informed” of the decision, but the report does not say by whom. Bush was only fully briefed on the program in 2006, at which point “he expressed discomfort with the ‘image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself,’” the Senate report said.

The CIA deflected blame for the lack of an earlier briefing, saying the decision “was made by the White House, not CIA, which stood ready to brief them as directed.” The agency said it did not have the authority to hold briefings without presidential direction.

The White House also kept other officials in the dark, with officials directing the CIA to hold off on briefing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell about the program until 2003, after the agency had already begun using the techniques. One internal CIA memo quoted in the report said “the WH is extremely concerned Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s going on.”

In a letter obtained by the committee, CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson wrote that former CIA Director George Tenet, prior to his departure in 2004, said he had asked to brief Bush. His successor, Porter Goss, said the same just before taking office. Helgerson’s letter “does not indicate to whom Director Tenet and Goss, who met regularly with the President, submitted requests to brief the President about the program,” the Senate report’s footnotes said.

Materials prepared for the National Security Council in 2006, when Bush was preparing to make public disclosures about the program, say that decisions about whom to question and how were made by CIA directors, without the president’s involvement.

But the report also argues that when the CIA provided White House personnel with information about the interrogation program, it was “incomplete and inaccurate. In one 2003 meeting with Vice President Cheney, Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Gonzales, CIA officials gave a presentation on waterboarding and other techniques that the Senate report characterized as inaccurate due to their contention that "major threats were countered and attacks averted" thanks to the use of such interrogation.

The CIA disputes that characterization. While the agency’s response notes that the CIA doesn’t endorsing the techniques used – Director John O. Brennan called them “an inappropriate method for gathering intelligence – it continues to contend that the program produced vital, lifesaving information.

The Agency disagrees with the Study's unqualified assertions that the overall detention and interrogation program did not produce unique intelligence that led terrorist plots to be disrupted, terrorists to be captured, or lives to be saved,” Brennan wrote.