By SCOTT SHANE, DAVID JOHNSTON and JAMES RISEN
This article is by Scott Shane, David Johnston and James Risen.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 — When the Justice Department publicly declared torture “abhorrent” in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations.
But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.
Mr. Gonzales approved the legal memorandum on “combined effects” over the objections of James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, who was leaving his job after bruising clashes with the White House. Disagreeing with what he viewed as the opinion’s overreaching legal reasoning, Mr. Comey told colleagues at the department that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it.
Later that year, as Congress moved toward outlawing “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard.
The classified opinions, never previously disclosed, are a hidden legacy of President Bush’s second term and Mr. Gonzales’s tenure at the Justice Department, where he moved quickly to align it with the White House after a 2004 rebellion by staff lawyers that had thrown policies on surveillance and detention into turmoil.
Congress and the Supreme Court have intervened repeatedly in the last two years to impose limits on interrogations, and the administration has responded as a policy matter by dropping the most extreme techniques. But the 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums, officials said. They show how the White House has succeeded in preserving the broadest possible legal latitude for harsh tactics.
A White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, said Wednesday that he would not comment on any legal opinion related to interrogations. Mr. Fratto added, “We have gone to great lengths, including statutory efforts and the recent executive order, to make it clear that the intelligence community and our practices fall within U.S. law” and international agreements.
More than two dozen current and former officials involved in counterterrorism were interviewed over the past three months about the opinions and the deliberations on interrogation policy. Most officials would speak only on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the documents and the C.I.A. detention operations they govern.
When he stepped down as attorney general in September after widespread criticism of the firing of federal prosecutors and withering attacks on his credibility, Mr. Gonzales talked proudly in a farewell speech of how his department was “a place of inspiration” that had balanced the necessary flexibility to conduct the war on terrorism with the need to uphold the law.
Associates at the Justice Department said Mr. Gonzales seldom resisted pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney and David S. Addington, Mr. Cheney’s counsel, to endorse policies that they saw as effective in safeguarding Americans, even though the practices brought the condemnation of other governments, human rights groups and Democrats in Congress. Critics say Mr. Gonzales turned his agency into an arm of the Bush White House, undermining the department’s independence.
The interrogation opinions were signed by Steven G. Bradbury, who since 2005 has headed the elite Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. He has become a frequent public defender of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program and detention policies at Congressional hearings and press briefings, a role that some legal scholars say is at odds with the office’s tradition of avoiding political advocacy.
Mr. Bradbury defended the work of his office as the government’s most authoritative interpreter of the law. “In my experience, the White House has not told me how an opinion should come out,” he said in an interview. “The White House has accepted and respected our opinions, even when they didn’t like the advice being given.”
The debate over how terrorist suspects should be held and questioned began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the Bush administration adopted secret detention and coercive interrogation, both practices the United States had previously denounced when used by other countries. It adopted the new measures without public debate or Congressional vote, choosing to rely instead on the confidential legal advice of a handful of appointees.
The policies set off bruising internal battles, pitting administration moderates against hard-liners, military lawyers against Pentagon chiefs and, most surprising, a handful of conservative lawyers at the Justice Department against the White House in the stunning mutiny of 2004. But under Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Bradbury, the Justice Department was wrenched back into line with the White House.
After the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the Geneva Conventions applied to prisoners who belonged to Al Qaeda, President Bush for the first time acknowledged the C.I.A.’s secret jails and ordered their inmates moved to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The C.I.A. halted its use of waterboarding, or pouring water over a bound prisoner’s cloth-covered face to induce fear of suffocation.
But in July, after a monthlong debate inside the administration, President Bush signed a new executive order authorizing the use of what the administration calls “enhanced” interrogation techniques — the details remain secret — and officials say the C.I.A. again is holding prisoners in “black sites” overseas. The executive order was reviewed and approved by Mr. Bradbury and the Office of Legal Counsel. read more