Attorney General Eric Holder. (Photo: AP)
Washington - President Barack Obama absolved CIA officers from prosecution for harsh, painful interrogation of terror suspects Thursday, even as his administration released Bush-era memos graphically detailing - and authorizing - such grim tactics as slamming detainees against walls, waterboarding them and keeping them naked and cold for long periods.
Human rights groups and many Obama officials have condemned such methods as torture. Bush officials have vigorously disagreed.
In releasing the documents, the most comprehensive accounting yet of interrogation methods that were among the Bush administrations most closely guarded secrets, Obama said he wanted to move beyond "a dark and painful chapter in our history."
Also see below: President Obama's Statement on the Memos â€¢
Past and present CIA officials had unsuccessfully pressed for more parts of the four legal memos to be kept secret, and some critics argued the release would make the United States less safe.
Michael Hayden, who led the CIA under George W. Bush, said CIA officers will now be more timid and allies will be more reluctant to share sensitive intelligence.
"If you want an intelligence service to work for you, they always work on the edge. That's just where they work," Hayden said. Now, he argued, foreign partners will be less likely to cooperate with the CIA because the release shows they "can't keep anything secret."
On the other side, human rights advocates argued that Obama should not have assured the CIA that officers who conducted interrogations would not be prosecuted if they used methods authorized by Bush lawyers in the memos.
Obama disagreed, saying in a statement, "Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."
The Bush administration memos describe the tough interrogation methods used against 28 terror suspects, the fullest and now complete government accounting of the techniques. They range from waterboarding - simulated drowning - to using a plastic neck collar to slam detainees into walls.
Other methods were more psychological than violent. One technique approved but never used involved putting a detainee who had shown a fear of insects into a box filled with caterpillars.
The documents also offer justification for using the tough tactics.
A May 30, 2005, memo says that before the harsher methods were used on top al-Qaida detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he refused to answer questions about pending plots against the United States.
"Soon, you will know," he told them, according to the memo.
It says the interrogations later extracted details of a plot called the "second wave" to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into a building in Los Angeles.
Terror plots that were disrupted, the memos say, include the alleged effort by Jose Padilla to detonate a "dirty bomb" spreading nuclear radiation.
Even as they exposed new details of the interrogation program, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, offered the first definitive assurance that the CIA officials who were involved are in the clear, as long as their actions were in line with the legal advice at the time.
Holder went further, telling the CIA the government would provide free legal representation to its employees in any legal proceeding or congressional investigation related to the program and would repay any financial judgment.
"It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department," Holder said.
Obama said in his statement and a separate letter sent directly to CIA employees that the nation must protect their identity "as vigilantly as they protect our security."
Current CIA Director Leon Panetta said in a message to his employees: "CIA responded, as duty requires."
Some parts of the memos were blacked out, and Panetta had pushed for more redactions, according to a government official who declined to be named because he was not authorized to release the information.
The CIA has acknowledged using waterboarding on three high-level terror detainees in 2002 and 2003, with the authorization of the White House and the Justice Department. Hayden said waterboarding has not been used since, but some human rights groups have urged Obama to hold CIA employees accountable for what they, and many Obama officials, say was torture.
The memos produced by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in 2002 and 2005 were released to meet a court-approved deadline in a lawsuit against the government in New York by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's impossible not to be shocked by the contents of these memos," said ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer. "The memos should never have been written, but we're pleased the new administration has made them public."
In addition to detailing individual techniques, one memo also specifically authorized a method for combining multiple methods, a practice human rights advocates argue crosses the line into torture even if any individual methods does not.
The methods authorized in the memos include keeping detainees naked, keeping them in painful standing positions and keeping their cells cold for long periods of time. Other techniques include depriving them of solid food and slapping them. Sleep deprivation, prolonged shackling and threats to a detainee's family were also used.
Interrogators were told not to allow a prisoner's body temperature or food intake to fall below a certain level, because either could cause permanent damage, said senior administration officials.
The Obama administration last month released nine legal memos from the Bush administration. It probably will release more as the ACLU lawsuit proceeds, the officials said.
The lawsuit has sought to use the Freedom of Information Act to shed light on the treatment of prisoners - though the Bush administration eventually abandoned many of the legal conclusions put forth in the memos and the Obama administration has gone further to actively dismantle much of President Bush's anti-terror program.
Obama has ordered the CIA's secret overseas prisons known as "black sites" closed and has ended "extraordinary renditions" of terrorism suspects to other countries if there is any reason to believe those countries would torture them. He has also restricted CIA questioning to methods and protocols approved for use by the U.S. military until a complete review of the program is conducted.
Also on Thursday, Holder formally revoked every legal opinion or memo issued during Bush's presidency that justified interrogation programs.
The documents have been the subject of a long, fierce debate inside and outside government over how much should be revealed about the previous administration's approach.
In his statement, Obama said he was reassured about the potential national security implications by the fact that much of the information contained had already been widely publicized - including some of it by Bush himself - and by the fact that the program no longer exists as it did.
Withholding the memos, Obama argued, would only serve to deny facts already in the public domain.
"This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States," the president said.
Those assurances are not likely to inoculate Obama against criticism from conservatives. Last month, former Vice President Dick Cheney said that Obama's decisions to revoke Bush-era terrorist detainee policies will "raise the risk to the American people of another attack."
Associated Press writer Pamela Hess contributed to this report.
President Obama's Statement on the Memos
Thursday 16 April 2009
by: Visit article original @ t r u t h o u t | Transcript
Following is President Obama's statement on the release of memos by the Office of Legal Counsel, as provided by the White House.
The Department of Justice will today release certain memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005 as part of an ongoing court case. These memos speak to techniques that were used in the interrogation of terrorism suspects during that period, and their release is required by the rule of law.
My judgment on the content of these memos is a matter of record. In one of my very first acts as President, I prohibited the use of these interrogation techniques by the United States because they undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer. Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure. A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past.
But that is not what compelled the release of these legal documents today. While I believe strongly in transparency and accountability, I also believe that in a dangerous world, the United States must sometimes carry out intelligence operations and protect information that is classified for purposes of national security. I have already fought for that principle in court and will do so again in the future. However, after consulting with the Attorney General, the Director of National Intelligence, and others, I believe that exceptional circumstances surround these memos and require their release.
First, the interrogation techniques described in these memos have already been widely reported. Second, the previous Administration publicly acknowledged portions of the program – and some of the practices – associated with these memos. Third, I have already ended the techniques described in the memos through an Executive Order. Therefore, withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States.
In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution. The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. Their accomplishments are unsung and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single American is safer. We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.
Going forward, it is my strong belief that the United States has a solemn duty to vigorously maintain the classified nature of certain activities and information related to national security. This is an extraordinarily important responsibility of the presidency, and it is one that I will carry out assertively irrespective of any political concern. Consequently, the exceptional circumstances surrounding these memos should not be viewed as an erosion of the strong legal basis for maintaining the classified nature of secret activities. I will always do whatever is necessary to protect the national security of the United States.
This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America's ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.
The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.