Also published at my web magazine, The Public Record.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted for the first time that she led high-level discussions beginning in 2002 with other senior Bush administration officials about subjecting suspected al-Qaeda terrorists detained at military prisons to the harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding, according to documents released late Wednesday by Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee.
Responding in writing to questions by Levin, who convened a hearing Thursday on the administration’s interrogation program, John B. Bellinger, Rice’s legal adviser at the State Department, said they recalled participating in meetings with Ashcroft and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in July 2002 about an Army and Air Force survival training program called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) meant to prepare U.S. soldiers for abuse they might suffer if captured by an outlaw regime.
Bellinger, who also worked with Rice at the NSC, the then National Security Adviser “expressed concern that the proposed CIA interrogation techniques comply with applicable U.S. law, including our international obligations” and that Rice asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to "personally review the legal guidance" of specific interrogation techniques.
In April, President George W. Bush told an ABC News reporter during an interview that he approved of meetings of a National Security Council's Principals Committee, whose advisers included Vice President Dick Cheney, former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, former CIA Director George Tenet and former Attorney General John Ashcroft, where these officials discussed specific interrogation techniques the CIA could use against detainees.
Waterboarding—or simulated drowning--has been regarded as torture since the days of the Spanish Inquisition.
“I recall being told that U.S. military personnel were subjected in training to certain physical and psychological interrogation techniques and that these techniques had been deemed not to cause significant physical or psychological harm,” Rice wrote in response to a question about the SERE techniques.
The hearing Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee will focus on the genesis of the SERE techniques used during the interrogations of suspected terrorists.
Rice has denied that the U.S. tortured or abused prisoners. But in declaring the U.S. does not engage in torture, appears to be relying on a narrower U.S. definition of torture than that is accepted under international law, such as the 1984 Convention Against Torture that was signed by the Reagan administration in 1988 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994.
“The threshold for torture is lower under international law: acts that do not amount to torture under U.S. law may do so under international law,” wrote Philippe Sands, law professor at University College London, in a column published in the Dec. 9, 2005, edition of The Financial Times.
“Waterboarding – strapping a detainee to a board and dunking him under water so he believes that he might drown – plainly constitutes torture under international law, even if it may not do so under U.S. law. …
“When the U.S. joined the 1984 convention it entered an ‘understanding’ on the definition of torture, to the effect that the international definition was to be read as being consistent with the U.S. definition The administration relies on the ‘understanding.’
There is ongoing debate as to whether the brutal interrogation techniques first used against a suspected terrorists predated an Aug. 1, 2002 legal opinion, widely called the “Torture Memo,” that provided CIA interrogators with the legal authority to use long-outlawed tactics, such as waterboarding, when interrogating so-called high-level terrorist suspects.
Neither Rice nor Bellinger provided dates about the discussions Rice led regarding interrogation methods. Additionally, Levin did not ask Rice whether Bush or Cheney participated in the talks.