WASHINGTON — The proclamation that President George W. Bush issued on June 26, 2003, to mark the U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture seemed innocuous, one of dozens of high-minded statements published and duly ignored each year.
The United States is "committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example," Bush declared, vowing to prosecute torture and to prevent "other cruel and unusual punishment."
But inside the CIA, the statement set off alarms. The agency's top lawyer, Scott Muller, called the White House to complain. The statement by the president could unnerve CIA interrogators Bush had authorized to use brutal tactics on al-Qaida prisoners, Muller said, raising fears that political winds could change and make them scapegoats.
White House officials reaffirmed their support for the CIA methods. But the exchange was a harbinger of the conflict between the coercive interrogations and the United States' historical stance against torture that would deeply divide the Bush administration and ultimately undo the program.
This is the story of the CIA program's unraveling, based on interviews with more than a dozen former Bush administration officials. They spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity because they feared being enmeshed in future investigations or public controversy.
The consensus of top administration officials about the CIA interrogation program, which they had approved without debate or dissent in 2002, began to fall apart the next year.
Acutely aware that the agency would be blamed if the policies lost political support, nervous CIA officials began to curb its practices much earlier than most Americans know. No one was waterboarded after March 2003, and coercive interrogation methods were shelved altogether in 2005.
Yet even as interrogation methods were scaled back, former officials now say, the battle inside the Bush administration over which ones should be permitted only grew hotter. There would be a tense phone call over the program's future during the 2005 Christmas holidays from Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, to Porter Goss, the CIA director; a White House showdown the next year between Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney; and Rice's refusal in 2007 to endorse the executive order with which Bush sought to revive the CIA program.
The real trouble began May 7, 2004, the day the CIA inspector general, John Helgerson, completed a devastating report. In thousands of pages, it challenged the legality of some interrogation methods, found that interrogators were exceeding the rules imposed by the Justice Department and questioned the effectiveness of the entire program.
CIA officials had sold the interrogation program to the White House. Now, the director of central intelligence at the time, George Tenet, knew that the inspector general's report could be a noose for White House officials to hang the CIA. Tenet ordered a halt to the harshest interrogation methods.
If the inspector general's report was a body blow to the CIA program, the bill passed by Congress the next year was a knockout punch. Provoked by the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and pushed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the 2005 bill banned cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Top CIA officials then feared that the agency's methods could actually be illegal. Goss, who had succeeded Tenet at the CIA, wrote a memorandum to the White House saying the agency would carry out no harsh interrogations without new Justice Department approval.
Hadley called Goss at home over the Christmas holidays to complain; Goss would not budge. Hadley decided he could not push the CIA to do what it thought might be illegal.
Nobody knew it then, but the CIA's fateful experiment in harsh interrogation was over. The "enhanced" interrogation, already scaled back, would not be used again.
When Barack Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, the CIA still maintained a network of empty jails overseas, where interrogators were still authorized to use physical pressure. Within 48 hours, he banned the methods.
Finally, last month, the program that had been the source of so many fights in Washington's power corridors met a prosaic end. Leon Panetta, the new CIA chief, terminated the agency's contracts providing the security and maintenance for the prisons.