WASHINGTON — The Bush administration issued a pair of secret memos to the CIA in 2003 and 2004 that explicitly endorsed the agency's use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques against al-Qaida suspects — documents prompted by worries among intelligence officials about a possible backlash if details of the program became public.
The memos, which have not been previously disclosed, were requested by then-CIA Director George Tenet more than a year after the secret interrogations began, said four administration and intelligence officials familiar with the documents.
Although Justice Department lawyers, beginning in 2002, signed off on the agency's interrogation methods, senior CIA officials were troubled that White House policymakers never endorsed them in writing.
The memos were the first — and, for years, the only — tangible expressions of the administration's consent for the CIA's use of harsh measures to extract information from captured al-Qaida leaders, the sources said. As early as the spring of 2002, several White House officials, including then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, were briefed by Tenet and his deputies, the officials said.
Rice, in a statement to congressional investigators two weeks ago, confirmed the briefings and acknowledged that the CIA director pressed the White House for "policy approval."
The repeated requests for a paper trail reflected growing worries within the agency that the administration might later distance itself from key decisions about the handling of captured al-Qaida leaders, former intelligence officials said.
As recently as last month, the administration had never publicly acknowledged that its policymakers knew about the specific techniques, such as waterboarding, that the agency used against high-ranking terror suspects.