WASHINGTON (Reuters) - CIA officials briefed at least 68 U.S. lawmakers between 2001 and 2007 on enhanced interrogation methods like simulated drowning that were being considered or used against captured al Qaeda members, according to declassified documents released on Tuesday.
The once-secret CIA papers, obtained in a lawsuit by the conservative legal foundation Judicial Watch, shed new light on which lawmakers knew the details of the controversial interrogation program and when.
Human rights groups have argued the harsh interrogation methods were forms of torture and violated U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions on treatment of war prisoners. President Barack Obama banned the techniques shortly after taking office in January 2009.
The declassified memos show the program began after the capture of al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi-born Palestinian who was the group's operations director, in the city of Faisalabad in central Pakistan in March 2002.
In a statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence dated April 12, 2007, then-CIA director Michael Hayden said the agency decided new "techniques" were needed because "Abu Zubaydah was withholding information that could help us track down al Qaeda leaders and prevent attacks."
The CIA briefed lawmakers as it began seeking expanded authority for the interrogation program. Current House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then minority whip, attended a briefing on Abu Zubaydah's interrogation April 24, 2002, along with seven other members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the documents show.
The CIA did not begin using the interrogation techniques until after receiving legal guidance from the Department of Justice in August 2002.
Pelosi, who became House Democratic leader in late 2002, said at a news conference in April last year that she was never told at the time that simulated drowning -- or waterboarding -- and other harsh interrogation techniques were being used. She said she was only told the CIA had legal opinions that approved harsh interrogation methods.
Hayden, in his 2007 statement for the Senate Select Committee, said as the CIA began implementing the interrogation program in 2002 "the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, the speaker, and the minority leader of the House, and the chairs and ranking members of the intelligence committees were fully briefed on the interrogation procedures."
Documents obtained by Judicial Watch indicate 68 lawmakers were briefed on the interrogation program between 2001 and 2007.
After the interrogation program began, Abu Zubaydah become "one of our most important sources of intelligence on al Qaeda," helping U.S. authorities identify alleged al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla and others, according to Hayden's statement, marked "TOP SECRET."
Early in his detention, Abu Zubaydah identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Hayden's statement says. Until that time, it says, Mohammed "did not even appear in our chart of key al Qaeda members and associates."
According to the statement, Sheikh Mohammed also provided information about another al Qaeda operative, Majid Khan, who, in turn, identified another operative named "Zubair" who was captured in June 2003.
Zubair later provided information that led to the arrest of Jamaah Islamiya leader and al Qaeda's South Asia representative Hambali, Hayden said.
The memos show that lawmakers were told as far back as July 13, 2004, that Mohammed had been subjected to waterboarding 183 times.
CIA Inspector General John Helgerson, briefing Reps. Porter Goss and Jane Harman, said "three people had been interrogated with the waterboard," a CIA memo on the meeting states.
"On one, the IG felt that it had been used excessively, beyond what the IG thought was the agreement with DOJ (Department of Justice). Khalid Sheikh Mohammed got 183 applications (redacted)," it says.