CIA interrogators used waterboarding, the near-drowning technique that top officials from the administration of US President Barack Obama have described as illegal torture, 266 times on two key prisoners from al-Qaeda, far more than previously reported.
The CIA officers used waterboarding at least 83 times in August 2002 on Abu Zubaydah, a 2005 Justice Department legal memorandum said. Zubaydah has been described as an al-Qaeda operative.
A former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, told ABC News and other news media organizations in 2007 that Zubaydah had undergone waterboarding for only 35 seconds before agreeing to tell everything he knew.
The 2005 memo also says that the CIA used waterboarding 183 times in March 2003 against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The New York Times reported in 2007 that Mohammed had been barraged more than 100 times with harsh interrogation methods, causing CIA officers to worry that they might have crossed legal limits and to halt his questioning. But the precise number and the exact nature of the interrogation method was not previously known.
The release of the numbers is likely to become part of the debate about the morality and efficacy of interrogation methods that the US Justice Department under the administration of former US president George W. Bush declared legal even though the US had historically treated them as torture.
Obama planned to visit CIA headquarters yesterday and make public remarks to employees, as well as meet privately with officials, an agency spokesman said on Sunday night. It will be his first visit to the agency, whose use of harsh interrogation methods he often condemned during the presidential campaign and whose secret prisons he ordered closed on the second full day of his presidency.
CIA officials had opposed the release of the interrogation memo, dated May 30, 2005, which was one of four secret legal memos on interrogation that Obama ordered to be released last Thursday.
NO ‘TRUTH COMMISSION’
Obama said CIA officers who had used waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods with the approval of the Justice Department would not be prosecuted.
He has repeatedly suggested that he opposes Congressional proposals for a “truth commission” to examine Bush administration counterterrorism programs, including interrogation and warrantless eavesdropping.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has begun a year-long, closed-door probe of the CIA interrogation program, in part to assess claims by Bush administration officials that brutal treatment, including slamming prisoners into walls, shackling them in standing positions for days and confining them in small boxes, was necessary to get information.
The fact that waterboarding was repeated so many times may raise questions about its effectiveness, as well as about assertions by Bush administration officials that their methods were used under strict guidelines.
A footnote to another 2005 Justice Department memo released on Thursday said waterboarding was used both more frequently and with a greater volume of water than the CIA rules permitted.
The new information on the number of waterboarding episodes came out over the weekend when a number of bloggers discovered it in the May 30, 2005, memo.
The sentences in the memo containing that information appear to have been redacted from some copies but are visible in others.