WASHINGTON -- President George W. Bush marked June 26, 2003, the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, with a strong statement spelling out America's commitment to eliminating the scourge from the earth.
"Torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere," he said, adding, "The United States is committed to the worldwide elimination of torture, and we are leading this fight by example. I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture."
Behind the scenes, however, the agency tasked with carrying out the Bush administration's torture program had no idea what the president was talking about.
The international community and human rights advocates cheered the president's forceful statement. But within the CIA, the statement set off a panicked response about the future of its program of secret prisons and so-called "enhanced interrogation."
The following day, after The Washington Post published a front-page article on the U.S. pledge to not torture terrorism suspects, then-CIA Deputy General Counsel John Rizzo called John Bellinger, the legal adviser to the National Security Council, to figure out what it meant for the U.S. government's own torture program. The answer that ultimately came back: Don't worry about it.
The revelation is contained in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's torture program in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
According to the report, released on Tuesday, Rizzo wrote in an email to other senior CIA officers that he had called Bellinger to "express our surprise and concern at some of the statements attributed to the Administration in the piece, particularly the Presidential statement on the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture as well as a quote from the Deputy White House Secretary Scott McClellan that all prisoners being held by the USG [U.S. government] are being treated 'humanely.'"
Rizzo noted that Bush's statement did not appear to contain anything "we can't live with," but he still wanted senior CIA leaders to "seek written reaffirmation" from the White House that the CIA's "ongoing practices ... are to continue," the report says.
On July 3, CIA Director George Tenet sent a memorandum to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice doing just that. He said he sought the reaffirmation because "recent Administration responses to inquiries and resulting media reporting about the Administration's position have created the impression that these [interrogation] techniques are not used by U.S. personnel and are no longer approved as a policy matter."
Days later, Tenet received the approval he sought.
“Vice President Cheney stated and National Security Advisor Rice agreed that the CIA was executing Administration policy in carrying out its interrogation program," the Senate report reads.
The administration reaffirmed its support for the CIA's practices in a second secret memo in 2004, when the agency became concerned about the public fallout from the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.
Rizzo wasn't the first CIA official to worry about the inconsistencies between the Bush administration's public pronouncements and how the United States was really treating detainees. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee's report, in early 2003, CIA General Counsel Scott Muller was also trying to get clarification. On Feb. 7, 2002, Bush issued a memorandum promising to treat prisoners "humanely," consistent with the Geneva Conventions. Muller wanted to make sure that this directive did not apply to the CIA.
As a result, the report says, the White House press secretary was told to avoid using the term "humane treatment" when discussing the detention of al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.
Want more updates from Amanda? Sign up for her newsletter, Piping Hot Truth.