WASHINGTON — A key lawyer in George W. Bush's administration who was involved in the evolution of the CIA's interrogation program has cast doubt on whether the Justice Department approved some of the harsh steps the agency took to get terrorist suspects to talk.
Former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee's remarks were contained in a transcript sent to the special prosecutor investigating CIA interrogations by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., who also made a copy public on Thursday.
Interviewed by Judiciary Committee members on May 26, Bybee stressed the limits that he helped set on how far the CIA could go, but still acknowledged that his legal advice helped pave the way for tactics such as waterboarding.
"I do wish to repeat that we said on page 2 of the techniques memo … that repetition will not be substantial" on waterboarding, Bybee reminded the committee, quoting from one of his own legal memoranda.
The professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was waterboarded 183 times. Terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah was subjected to the procedure at least 83 times.
Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge, said there is "ambiguity" as to whether 83 and 183 refer to the number of times water was poured on a detainee, the number of sessions in which waterboarding was used or something else.
Bybee said Justice Department lawyers advised the CIA that if they used substantial repetitions, "you (the CIA) don't have a legal opinion from us" to provide legal protection for the interrogators.
Bybee was the head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which has been criticized by Bush administration critics as an enabler for abuse.
Bybee's statements "are highly relevant to the pending criminal investigation of detainee abuse, and I have provided the committee's interview to the Justice Department," Conyers said in a statement.
The committee's top Republican, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, said he appreciated Bybee's "thorough effort to be truthful and forthcoming." But he added that the Democrats' agenda was to criticize Bush administration policies "that kept America safe."