Tuesday December 11, 2007
Guardian UnlimitedThe White House today was directly accused of authorising the waterboarding of al-Qaida suspects, putting President George Bush at the centre of a deepening controversy about the treatment of detainees.
The charge from John Kiriakou, a former CIA official involved in the capture of senior al-Qaida operatives, comes at a time when the Bush administration is trying to contain a row over the destruction of hundreds of hours of video footage of the interrogation of a high-level al-Qaida suspect, Abu Zubaydah.
Kiriakou, who spent 14 years in the CIA, was directly involved in the capture of Zubaydah, the first detainee in the war on terror. He first met the detainee in a Pakistani military hospital, where Zubaydah, was recovering from gunshot wounds.
The suspect was later taken to a secret CIA prison for interrogation and where he is believed to have been subjected to waterboarding.
"This isn't something done willy nilly. This isn't something where an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he's going to carry out an enhanced technique on a prisoner" Kiriakou told NBC television this morning.
"This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and justice department."
The comments put President Bush at the centre of a row that erupted last week after the CIA director, General Michael Hayden, wrote a letter to employees revealing that the agency had destroyed hundreds of hours of videotape of the interrogation of Zubaydah.
Mr Bush told ABC television today he was unaware of the tapes suspects.
"My first recollection of whether the tapes existed or whether they were destroyed was when Michael Hayden briefed me," Mr Bush told ABC.
"There's a preliminary inquiry going on and I think you'll find that a lot more data, facts will be coming out."
The first phase of that process got underway today as Hayden began two days of closed hearings before Congress about the agency's decision to destroy the tapes.
The justice department and the CIA inspector generals' office have also begun investigations into the destruction of the footage, showing the interrogation of Zubaydah and another al-Qaida operative. There is also growing pressure for the appointment of a special counsel.
The destruction of the footage in 2005 has raised questions about whether the CIA obstructed the work of the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks which had asked repeatedly for such documentation, and had been told it did not exist.
Hayden also said Congress was informed of the destruction. However, Silvestre Reyes, the chairman of the Democratic intelligence committee, and Peter Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the committee, said that was not true.
Kiriakou did not say how he knew that the coercive interrogations had been authorised. However, he said that CIA agents were required to offer a "well thought out reason" any time they wished to use waterboarding.
In the case of Zubaydah, he told ABC news yesterday that the waterboarding had an immediate effect. The al-Qaida detainee began talking within 35 seconds, providing information that Kiriacou claims disrupted dozens of planned attacks.
"It was like flipping a switch," the former CIA official told ABC news. "He said that Allah had come to him in his cell and told him to cooperate, because it would make things easier for his brothers."
The White House has been adamant that certain "enhanced interrogation" techniques deployed by the CIA - but barred for use by the US military - do not amount to torture.
"It's no secret that the president approved a lawful programme in order to interrogate hardened terrorists," the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said today.
"We do not torture. We also know that this programme has saved lives by disrupting terrorist attacks."
The vice-president, Dick Cheney, has specifically defended the practice of waterboarding, telling a radio programme last year it was a "no-brainer" if it could save lives.