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Profile: Principals Committee

Principals Committee was a participant or observer in the following events:

In the days following the capture of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002), a group of top White House officials, the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, begins a series of meetings that result in the authorization of specific torture methods against Zubaida and other detainees. The top secret talks and meetings eventually approve such methods to be used by CIA agents against high-value terrorism suspects. The US media will not learn of this until six years later (see April 9, 2008). The Principals Committee meetings are chaired by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and attendees include Vice President Dick Cheney, CIA Director George Tenet, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Tenet’s successor, Porter Goss, will also participate in the meetings. Sometimes deputies attend in place of their superiors. Rice’s group not only discusses and approves specific “harsh” methods of interrogation, but also approves the use of “combined” interrogation techniques on suspects who prove recalcitrant. The approved techniques include slapping and shoving prisoners, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding, or simulated drowning, a technique banned for decades by the US military. Some of the discussions of the interrogation sessions are so detailed that the Principals Committee virtually choreographs the sessions down to the number of times CIA agents can use specific tactics. [ABC News, 4/9/2008; Associated Press, 4/10/2008; ABC News, 4/11/2008] The Principals Committee also ensures that President Bush is not involved in the meetings, thereby granting him “deniability” over the decisions, though Bush will eventually admit to being aware of the decisions (see April 11, 2008). The Principals Committee, particularly Cheney, is described by a senior intelligence official as “deeply immersed” in the specifics of the decisions, often viewing demonstrations of how specific tactics work. [Associated Press, 4/10/2008]
Imminent Threat Calls for Extreme Measures - The move towards using harsh and likely illegal interrogation tactics begins shortly after the capture of Zubaida in late March 2002 (see Late March through Early June, 2002 and March 28, 2002). Zubaida is seen as a potentially critical source of information about potential attacks similar to 9/11. He is kept in a secret CIA prison where he recovers from the wounds suffered during his capture, and where he is repeatedly questioned. However, he is allegedly uncooperative with his inquisitors, and CIA officials want to use more physical and aggressive techniques to force him to talk (see March 28, 2002-Mid-2004 and April - June 2002). The CIA briefs the Principals Committee, chaired by Rice, and the committee signs off on the agency’s plan to use more extreme interrogation methods on Zubaida. After Zubaida is waterboarded (see April - June 2002), CIA officials tell the White House that he provided information leading to the capture of two other high-level al-Qaeda operatives, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (see Shortly After February 29 or March 1, 2003) and Ramzi bin al-Shibh (see Late 2002 and May 2002-2003). The committee approves of waterboarding as well as a number of “combined” interrogation methods, basically a combination of harsh techniques to use against recalcitrant prisoners.
The 'Golden Shield' - The committee asks the Justice Department to determine whether using such methods would violate domestic or international laws. “No one at the agency wanted to operate under a notion of winks and nods and assumptions that everyone understood what was being talked about,” a second senior intelligence official will recall in 2008. “People wanted to be assured that everything that was conducted was understood and approved by the folks in the chain of command.” In August 2002, Justice Department lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel will write a memo that gives formal legal authority to government interrogators to use harsh, abusive methods on detainees (see August 1, 2002). The memo is called the “Golden Shield” for CIA agents who worry that they could be held criminally liable if the harsh, perhaps tortuous interrogations ever become public knowledge. CIA veterans remember how everything from the Vietnam-era “Phoenix Program” of assassinations to the Iran-Contra arms sales of the 1980s were portrayed as actions of a “rogue,” “out-of-control” CIA; this time, they intend to ensure that the White House and not the agency is given ultimate responsibility for authorizing extreme techniques against terror suspects. Tenet demands White House approval for the use of the methods, even after the Justice Department issues its so-called “Golden Shield” memo explicitly authorizing government interrogators to torture suspected terrorists (see August 1, 2002). Press sources will reveal that Tenet, and later Goss, convey requests for specific techniques to be used against detainees to the committee (see Summer 2003). One high-ranking official will recall: “It kept coming up. CIA wanted us to sign off on each one every time. They’d say: ‘We’ve got so and so. This is the plan.’” The committee approves every request. One source will say of the discussions: “These discussions weren’t adding value. Once you make a policy decision to go beyond what you used to do and conclude it’s legal, [you should] just tell them to implement it.” [ABC News, 4/9/2008; Associated Press, 4/10/2008; ABC News, 4/11/2008] In April 2008, law professor Jonathan Turley will say: “[H]ere you have the CIA, which is basically saying, ‘We’re not going to have a repeat of the 1970s, where you guys have us go exploding cigars and trying to take out leaders and then you say you didn’t know about it.’ So the CIA has learned a lot. So these meetings certainly cover them in that respect.” [MSNBC, 4/10/2008] A former senior intelligence official will say, “If you looked at the timing of the meetings and the memos you’d see a correlation.” Those who attended the dozens of meetings decided “there’d need to be a legal opinion on the legality of these tactics” before using them on detainees. [Associated Press, 4/10/2008]
Ashcroft Uneasy at White House Involvement - Ashcroft in particular is uncomfortable with the discussions of harsh interrogation methods that sometimes cross the line into torture, though his objections seem more focused on White House involvement than on any moral, ethical, or legal problems. After one meeting, Ashcroft reportedly asks: “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.” However, others in the discussions, particularly Rice, continue to support the torture program. Even after Jack Goldsmith, the chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), withdraws the “Golden Shield” memo and after Powell begins arguing that the torture program is harming the image of the US abroad, when CIA officials ask to continue using particular torture techniques, Rice responds: “This is your baby. Go do it.”
Reaction after Press Learns of Meetings - After the press learns of the meetings (see April 9, 2008), the only person involved who will comment will be Powell, who will say through an assistant that there were “hundreds of [Principals Committee] meetings” on a wide variety of topics and that he is “not at liberty to discuss private meetings.” [ABC News, 4/9/2008; Associated Press, 4/10/2008; ABC News, 4/11/2008]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Porter J. Goss, US Department of Justice, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Principals Committee, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Jack Goldsmith, John Ashcroft, Bush administration (43), Al-Qaeda, Abu Zubaida, Central Intelligence Agency, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush, George J. Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld, Jonathan Turley, National Security Council

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

The press reports that, beginning in the spring of 2002, top Bush administration officials approved specific details about how terrorism suspects would be interrogated by the CIA. The officials issued their approval as part of their duties as the National Security Council’s Principals Committee (see April 2002 and After). [ABC News, 4/9/2008] The American Civil Liberties Union’s Caroline Fredrickson says: “With each new revelation, it is beginning to look like the torture operation was managed and directed out of the White House. This is what we suspected all along.” [Associated Press, 4/10/2008]

Entity Tags: Caroline Fredrickson, Bush administration (43), Principals Committee, American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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