WASHINGTON — The CIA inspector general in 2004 found that there was no conclusive proof that waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques helped the Bush administration thwart any "specific imminent attacks," according to recently declassified Justice Department memos.
That undercuts assertions by former Vice President Dick Cheney and other former Bush administration officials that the use of harsh interrogation tactics including waterboarding, which is widely considered torture, was justified because it headed off terrorist attacks.
The risks and effectiveness of waterboarding and other enhanced techniques are at the center of a heated debate over how thoroughly to investigate the CIA's secret detention and interrogation programs.
"It is difficult to quantify with confidence and precision the effectiveness of the program," Steven G. Bradbury, then the Justice Department's principal deputy assistant attorney general, wrote in a May 30, 2005, memo to CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, one of four released last week by the Obama administration.
"As the IG Report notes, it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks. And because the CIA has used enhanced techniques sparingly, 'there is limited data on which to assess their individual effectiveness,' " Bradbury wrote, quoting the IG report.
Nevertheless, Bradbury concluded in his May 2005 memos that the program had been effective, although the still secret reports by Inspector General John Helgerson had been disseminated a full year earlier.
Helgerson also concluded that waterboarding was riskier than officials claimed and reported that the CIA's Office of Medical Services thought that the risk to the health of some prisoners outweighed any potential intelligence benefit, according to the memos.
The IG's report is among several indications that the Bush administration's use of abusive interrogation methods was less productive than former administration officials have claimed.
Even some of those in the military who developed the techniques warned that the information they produced was "less reliable" than that gained by traditional psychological measures, and that using them would produce an "intolerable public and political backlash when discovered," according to a Senate Armed Services Committee report released on Tuesday.
President George W. Bush said at a September 2006 news conference that one plot, to attack a Los Angeles office tower, was "derailed" in early 2002 -- before the harsh CIA interrogation measures were approved, contrary to those who claim that waterboarding revealed it.
In December, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Vanity Fair magazine that he didn't think that intelligence gleaned from abusive interrogation techniques had disrupted any attacks on America.
The New York Times first reported Helgerson's inspector general's report in November 2005, but details of its contents have remained secret. A version of the report that the CIA turned over to the ACLU in May 2008 in response to a lawsuit consisted primarily of heavy black lines and notations of sections that had been redacted. (See a copy at tinyurl.com/dal9ty)
A CIA spokesman said Friday that he knew of no plans to release a more complete
version. The Bradbury memos that cite the inspector general's report reveal that officials at CIA headquarters insisted on the repeated waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner to undergo the technique, even after interrogators on the scene sought to stop the technique.