High-level meetings on interrogations in the White House? Who's surprised?

The AP reports that Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft held a series of meetings with military and intelligence leaders in the White House to determine the boundaries of interrogation techniques to be used on captured al-Qaeda terrorists. They eventually approved a series of techniques that later came under considerable criticism as potentially torturous, including the use of waterboarding. That this comes as a surprise to the AP is in itself somewhat surprising, but predictably, the opponents of the Bush administration have used this as another political cudgel:

Bush administration officials from Vice President Dick Cheney on down signed off on using harsh interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists after asking the Justice Department to endorse their legality, The Associated Press has learned.

The officials also took care to insulate President Bush from a series of meetings where CIA interrogation methods, including waterboarding, which simulates drowning, were discussed and ultimately approved. …

The meetings were held in the White House Situation Room in the years immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks. Attending the sessions were Cheney, then-Bush aides Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

No one seriously argued that these interrogation techniques sprang out of thin air, did they? Of course they got approved by high-level officials in the administration. They also got reviewed in dozens of briefings afterward involving Congressional leadership in both parties, including the waterboarding that the critics claim as torture. Not for two years afterwards did any member of Congress raise a single objection, well after the CIA stopped waterboarding terror suspects.

In fact, these meetings showed that the administration, the Pentagon, and the CIA took care to find legal grounds for every technique applied by its personnel. As the AP reports far down in the story, the CIA especially did not want to go cowboy in its interrogations. The intel community did not want to risk exposing its personnel to prosecution afterwards, when the nation lost its nerve, by working without a legal net underneath them.

If anything, this story should emphasize the fact that the administration tried to find and outline the most aggressive boundaries for interrogations without crossing into actual torture. As Mark Impomeni puts it at AOL’s Political Machine, it clearly shows that the administration did not “run amok”, but tried to make a considered and sober determination of their limitations after 9/11. Were these the correct decisions? Members of both parties thought so at the time. If that has changed, we have to ask whether a less aggressive policy would have been hailed as enlightened if we had suffered another terrorist attack on our homeland after 9/11, or if the current administration would have been castigated for not doing everything in its power to gather the intel that would have prevented it.