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.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the meetings described them Thursday to the AP to confirm details first reported by ABC News on Wednesday. The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.
Between 2002 and 2003, the Justice Department issued several memos from its Office of Legal Counsel that justified using the interrogation tactics, including ones that critics call torture.
"If you looked at the timing of the meetings and the memos you'd see a correlation," the former intelligence official said. Those who attended the dozens of meetings agreed that "there'd need to be a legal opinion on the legality of these tactics" before using them on al Qaeda detainees, the former official said.
The meetings were held in the White House Situation Room in the years immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Attending the sessions were then-Bush aides Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The White House, Justice and State departments and the CIA refused comment Thursday, as did a spokesman for Tenet. A message for Ashcroft was not immediately returned.
Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy lambasted what he described as "yet another astonishing disclosure about the Bush administration and its use of torture."
"Who would have thought that in the United States of America in the 21st century, the top officials of the executive branch would routinely gather in the White House to approve torture?" Kennedy said in a statement. "Long after President Bush has left office, our country will continue to pay the price for his administration's renegade repudiation of the rule of law and fundamental human rights."
The American Civil Liberties Union called on Congress to investigate.
"With each new revelation, it is beginning to look like the torture operation was managed and directed out of the White House," ACLU legislative director Caroline Fredrickson said. "This is what we suspected all along."
The former intelligence official described Cheney and the top national security officials as deeply immersed in developing the CIA's interrogation program during months of discussions over which methods should be used and when.
At times, CIA officers would demonstrate some of the tactics, or at least detail how they worked, to make sure the small group of "principals" fully understood what the al Qaeda detainees would undergo. The principals eventually authorized physical abuse such as slaps and pushes, sleep deprivation, or waterboarding. This technique involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning.
The small group then asked the Justice Department to examine whether using the interrogation methods would break domestic or international laws.
"No one at the agency wanted to operate under a notion of winks and nods and assumptions that everyone understood what was being talked about," said a second former senior intelligence official. "People wanted to be assured that everything that was conducted was understood and approved by the folks in the chain of command."
The Office of Legal Counsel issued at least two opinions on interrogation methods.
In one, dated Aug. 1, 2002, then-Assistant Attorney General Jaycausing pain similar in intensity to that caused by death or organ failure. A second, dated March 14, 2003, justified using harsh tactics on detainees held overseas so long as military interrogators did not specifically intend to torture their captives.
In a column on the now-disgraced White House legal counsel who drafted the March 14 memo, CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen said the brilliance of the document was that it enabled the administration to "hold a duck in its hand and sell it to the rest of the government (at least temporarily) as a swan."
"When an attorney has bad facts, he argues the law; when he has bad law, he argues the facts. (Memo author John) Yoo had bad law but two really 'good' facts to offer: 1) the United States had been attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001; 2) the attack had made the nation's legal and political establishment willing (as it always is in times of war) to bend over backward in deference to a sitting president,".
Both legal opinions since have been withdrawn.
The second former senior intelligence official said rescinding the memos caused the CIA to seek even more detailed approvals for the interrogations.
The department issued another still-secret memo in October 2001 that, in part, sought to outline novel ways the military could be used domestically to defend the country in the face of an impending attack. The Justice Department so far has refused to release it, citing attorney-client privilege, and Attorney General Michael Mukasey declined to describe it Thursday at a Senate panel where Democrats characterized it as a "torture memo."
Not all of the principals who attended were fully comfortable with the White House meetings.
The ABC News report portrayed Ashcroft as troubled by the discussions, despite agreeing that the interrogations methods were legal.
"Why are we talking about this in the White House?" the network quoted Ashcroft as saying during one meeting. "History will not judge this kindly."