Suzanne Goldenberg / The Guardian – 2007-12-14 21:36:30
WASHINGTON (December 12, 2007) — The White House was directly accused yesterday of authorising the waterboarding of al-Qaida detainees, putting President George Bush at the centre of a deepening controversy over the treatment of detainees.
The charge from John Kiriakou, a former CIA official involved in the capture of senior al-Qaida members, came on a day when the Bush administration tried to contain a dispute concerning the destruction of hundreds of hours of video footage of the interrogation of the high-level al-Qaida suspect known as Abu Zubaydah.
The CIA director, General Michael Hayden, testified before a closed session of the Senate intelligence committee for 90 minutes yesterday on the agency’s decision to destroy videotapes of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation.
Kiriakou, who spent 14 years in the CIA, was directly involved in the capture of Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in the war on terror, who was shot and wounded during his capture in Pakistan, and later taken to a secret CIA jail for interrogation.
He was one of three al-Qaida suspects known to have been subjected to waterboarding – a technique that involves making the prisoner fear he is drowning by throwing water over his face while he is strapped down on a board.
“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 was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the national security council and justice department.”
The comments put Bush at the centre of the row that erupted last week after Hayden wrote a letter to employees revealing that the agency had destroyed hundreds of hours of videotape of the interrogation of the al-Qaida operative.
Bush said yesterday he was unaware until last week of the tapes’ history. “My first recollection of whether the tapes existed or whether they were destroyed was when Michael Hayden briefed me,” Bush told ABC television. “I think you’ll find that a lot more data, facts will be coming out.” The disavowal failed to stop the controversy from escalating as Hayden began the first of two days of closed hearings before Congress.
“Who was responsible for destroying the tapes? Was something being covered up? The possibility of obstruction of justice is very real,” the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said on the floor.
The justice department and the CIA inspector general’s office have begun investigations into the destruction of the footage. Reid said he might join the Democratic senator and presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, in calling for a special prosecutor if the investigations run into difficulties.
The destruction of the tapes 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 been told it did not exist.
Hayden said Congress was told of the destruction. However, Silvestre Reyes, 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 the coercive interrogations had been authorised. However, he said CIA agents were required to offer a “well thought-out reason” any time they wished to use waterboarding.
The Bush administration 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. “We do not torture. We also know that this programme has saved lives by disrupting terrorist attacks.”
The vice-president, Dick Cheney, has defended waterboarding.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.