How Waterboarding Got the Green Light from Bush

The Bush administration approved the use of "waterboarding" on Al Qaeda detainees after receiving reports from government psychologists that it was "100 percent effective" in breaking the will of U.S. military personnel subjected to the technique during training, according to documents released today by a Senate Committee.

The Senate Armed Services report concludes that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques—including forcing detainees to stand naked, subjecting them to growling dogs and depriving them of sleep—were discussed by top members of the National Security Council and other senior administration officials inside the White House. Some officials expressed strong concerns about the legality of the methods. But the techniques were ultimately given the green light, based on government assessments that showed such methods were quick and effective in breaking down the resistance of U.S. military officers who were subjected to them in so-called Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) classes.

"Use of the watering board resulted in student capitulation and compliance 100 percent of the time," wrote Jerald F. Ogrisseg, the Air Force's chief of psychology services, in a July 24, 2002 memo released as part of the Senate report. (Ogrisseg later testified he adviced his superiors that waterboarding would be "illegal" if actually used against detainees.) But the report concludes that the use of these techniques against Al Qaeda detainees "damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies and compromised our moral authority."

Waterboarding is a method of simulated drowning that involves strapping down a subject and pouring water into his nose and mouth. As the subject gasps for breath, the water enters his lungs, inducing extreme panic within minutes. These and other SERE techniques were developed from methods used by Chinese Communists against American soldiers during the Korean War. At the time, the United States denounced the Chinese for violating the Geneva Conventions and international law.

The idea behind SERE training was to teach U.S. military personnel how to resist harsh interrogation should they be captured by enemy soldiers fighting under the command of brutal regimes. But after September 11, SERE techniques were "reverse-engineered," and became a template for CIA and U.S. military officers trying to extract intelligence from high-value Qaeda detainees such as Khalid Shaykh Mohammed, according to the Senate Committee report.

"The message from the top was clear," said Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement accompanying the release of the panel's report. "It was appropriate to consider degrading and abusive techniques for use against detainees."

Much of the report, including the role top White House officials played in approving such methods, is based on material made public in two previous hearings by Levin's panel and other government reports. But it also includes some recently declassified documents, as well as new evidence showing how critical the use of SERE methods was in persuading senior officials to adopt interrogation techniques the U.S. government previously found strongly objectionable.

One new piece of evidence: correspondence between Levin and U.S. appellate Judge Jay Bybee, who wrote memos about interrogation methods when he served as head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel six years ago. One of those memos, dated Aug. 1, 2002, gave an extremely restrictive definition of torture under U.S. law, concluding that only techniques that caused physical pain equivalent to "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" would be banned by a U.S. anti-torture law. Another Bybee memo dated the same day—and never publicly released—discussed the legality of particular methods, such as waterboarding. According to Senator Levin, senior Bush advisors, including then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and Vice President Cheney's chief lawyer David Addington, were consulted on the development of the legal analysis, which was developed by Bybee and another lawyer, John Yoo.

In his correspondence with Levin, Bybee confirmed that in July 2002, just prior to preparing his opinions, he was provided a CIA assessment of the "psychological effects of military resistance training." Bybee reviewed the assessment, which is still secret, with three other lawyers—including Yoo—and used it to "inform" his analysis about the legality of various interrogation techniques. His legal opinion was then provided to the CIA.

Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, said, "CIA provided, just as you would expect, information to the Department of Justice on interrogation methods being considered for use with hardened terrorists." An intelligence official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, added: "Justice gathered facts and did its own legal research prior to formulating opinions. That's how it's supposed to work, and that's how it did work."

About the same time that Bybee was drawing up these memos, Jim Haynes, then the chief Defense department counsel, also requested a list of SERE training techniques and their psychological effects. After Haynes and other Pentagon lawyers reviewed the list—and received copies of the Bybee memos—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved some of those methods for use on detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Levin said the new documents and other material uncovered by his probe show how the abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq were not, as administration officials initially contended, the result of a "few bad apples" but in fact the result of deliberate administration policy. But there is still a host of outstanding questions about that policy and how it was created.

The Armed Services Committee's main brief was to investigate how aggressive interrogation techniques came to be used against detainees held by U.S. military forces in places like Abu Ghraib. The committee investigation did not specifically examine the use by the CIA of aggressive interrogation methods against "high-value" detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and top Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in a network of secret detention facilities overseas. Levin's committee had no jurisdiction to examine the CIA's interrogation program.

Congressional officials say the Senate Intelligence Committee has been conducting its own "review" of CIA interrogation practices. The Intelligence panel has also undertaken a formal investigation into why the CIA destroyed an extensive videotape archive of the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and another high-level Al Qaeda operative who were subjected to "waterboarding by the agency." However, the intelligence committee has been proceeding carefully with this inquiry—and has refrained from interviewing key witnesses—due to a continuing investigation by Justice department prosecutors into whether any laws were broken when the tapes were destroyed.