The CIA briefed top Democrats and Republicans on the congressional intelligence committees more than 30 times about enhanced interrogation techniques, according to intelligence sources who said the lawmakers tacitly approved the techniques that some Democrats in Congress now say should land Bush administration officials in jail.
Between 2002 and 2006, the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees “each got complete, benchmark briefings on the program,” said one of the intelligence sources who is familiar with the briefings.
“If Congress wanted to kill this program, all it had to do was withhold funding,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the closed-door briefings.
Those who were briefed included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Rep. Jane Harman of California, all Democrats, and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, all Republicans.
The Democratic and Republican staff directors for both committees also were briefed, according to the intelligence source and to a declassified memo released Wednesday that detailed some of the Senate committee briefings.
President Obama last week released a series of memos that were the basis for the CIA’s program and that laid out specific tactics, such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding, and their release has pushed the issue of blame to the forefront of the political discussion.
Some Democrats and liberal pressure groups have called for Bush administration officials who wrote the rules allowing enhanced techniques to be prosecuted, saying the tactics amounted to torture. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Pelosi have both left the door open for such prosecutions.
Seeking the facts about congressional approval, Mr. Hoekstra, the ranking member of the House committee, sent a letter Monday asking National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair, a retired admiral, to provide an unclassified list of the dates, locations and names of all members of Congress who were briefed on the techniques.
“I believe their response was probably, ‘Well, that’s OK,’ or otherwise they wouldn’t have signed off on it,” Mr. Hoekstra said when asked about other members who received briefings.
Members of Congress who were briefed have offered different recollections for what they were briefed on and what their responsibilities were for addressing the information.
Mrs. Pelosi has said she was briefed on waterboarding techniques only once, when she was ranking member of the House committee, and said that in that briefing CIA officials said they thought the tactic was legal and that the agency was considering using it.
“They come in to us and represent certain things. We can’t talk to other people about it. We don’t know whether it is true or false. We just know that it is a fact that that is what they have told us in these closed hearings and people hear different things in the same room, depending on their own experience,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters Wednesday.
Spokesmen for Mrs. Harman and Mr. Rockefeller didn’t return calls seeking comment, but in a statement accompanying the declassified memo detailing Senate committee briefings Mr. Rockefeller said they weren’t always told the truth.
“In the wake of 9/11 we all wanted to leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of terrorists to prevent future attacks. At that time and since, the Senate intelligence committee sought to work in partnership with the administration to keep America safe,” he said. “But we now know that essential information was withheld from the Congress on many matters and decisions were made in secret by senior Bush administration officials to obscure the complete picture.”
Also briefed on the tactics were former Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Republican, and former Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, who were both chairmen of their respective intelligence committees.
Mr. Graham told the Huffington Post on Wednesday that prosecutions “should not be taken off the table.”
Mr. Blair, in a memo last week to his staff, also said Congress had been notified of the tactics: “From 2002 to 2006 when the use of these techniques ended, the leadership of the CIA repeatedly reported their activities both to Executive Branch policymakers and to members of Congress, and received permission to continue to use the techniques.”
That line, in an April 16 memo to the intelligence community, was later deleted from a statement released to the public by the Obama administration.
The briefings to Congress were opened to the full intelligence committees after September 2006, when President Bush publicly acknowledged the program. But at least one of the Democrats privy to early briefings by the CIA has expressed an openness to prosecution of former Bush administration officials for their roles in approving the techniques.
Some in Congress have called for appointing a “truth commission” to examine the interrogation program and other Bush administration activities. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, has called for a bipartisan panel to look into the matter, as has his House counterpart, Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat.
Mr. Obama said this week he prefers to avoid retribution and that if Congress does appoint a commission it must avoid charges of politicization. The president also said any decision on prosecutions will be made by the attorney general.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairman of the Senate intelligence panel since January, earlier this week sent Mr. Obama a letter urging him to be open to prosecution of former Justice officials who wrote the memos. Her committee is conducting an investigation into the interrogation techniques.
A congressional aide, defending Mrs. Feinstein, said the senator was not briefed on the techniques until 2006 and she soon after took action to oppose them by drafting a bill to curb the tactics the CIA was allowed to use.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, refused to answer questions from Republicans about her advice to Mr. Obama on the publication of the interrogation memos.
“I’m not going to share that with you,” she told Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican.
Asked by Mr. Rohrabacher about former Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim that the harsh interrogations had produced valuable intelligence, Mrs. Clinton said, “It won’t surprise you that I don’t consider [Mr. Cheney] a particularly reliable source.”
Separately, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, and two other senators sent a letter Wednesday to Mr. Obama criticizing some of the interrogation techniques but urging Mr. Obama not to prosecute the former Justice Department officials who approved them.
“Moving in such a direction would have a deeply chilling effect on the ability of lawyers in any administration to provide their client - the U.S. government - with their best legal advice,” said the letter, also signed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent.