CIA interrogation memos: Obama unseals Justice Department documents

Prisoners could be kept awake for more than a week. They could be stripped of their clothes, fed nothing but liquid and thrown against a wall 30 consecutive times.

In one case, the CIA was told it could prey on one prisoner's fear of insects by stuffing him into a box with a bug. When all else failed, the CIA could turn to what a Justice Department memo described as "the most traumatic" interrogation technique of all, waterboarding.

Baring what he called a "dark and painful chapter in our history," President Barack Obama on Thursday released a collection of secret Justice Department documents that provided graphic guidance to the CIA on how far the agency could go to extract information from terrorism suspects.

The memos provide the most detailed account to date not only of the interrogation arsenal the CIA employed against Al Qaeda captives in secret prisons around the world, but the legal arguments that the Bush administration constructed to justify their use.

At the same time, Obama assured CIA employees and other U.S. operatives that they would be protected from prosecution or other legal exposure for their roles in the U.S. counterterrorism efforts over the past eight years.

"This is a time for reflection, not retribution," Obama said in a message delivered to CIA employees Thursday, explaining his decision to release a collection of documents that CIA veterans and some senior officials in his administration had fought to keep sealed.

The decision to release the memos was met with criticism among conservatives and CIA veterans who warned that the highly detailed documents would serve as a counterinterrogation training manual for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said Thursday that the release of the memos would make the country less safe.

The documents spell out in often disconcerting detail how interrogation methods were to be administered.

Prisoners could be kept shackled in a standing position for as many as 180 hours. The documents provide statistics, noting that more than a dozen CIA prisoners had been deprived of sleep for at least 48 hours, three for more than 96, and one for the nearly eight-day maximum stated on one memo. The documents include elaborate legal debate over waterboarding, the interrogation technique that makes a prisoner believe he is in imminent danger of drowning. The memos spell out that a prisoner could be waterboarded at most six times during a two-hour session, and they require an attending physician to be on duty in case a prisoner didn't recover after being returned to an upright position.

In that event, "the intervening physician would perform a tracheotomy," said a May 10, 2005, memo.

The memos were crafted by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, a unit at the center of a series of legal debates during the Bush administration over the limits of executive power and counterterrorism tactics.

The memos were designed to fill in details left out of more theoretical opinions—some of which eventually surfaced publicly—that were produced by the Justice Department as it sought to lay out the legal boundaries of the Bush administration's "war on terror."

The four documents cover a period from 2002 until 2005, when the government was recalculating its approach to detention and interrogation matters in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

The release of the documents was preceded by months of jostling between CIA and Justice Department officials over how much to disclose. A Justice Department official said Atty. Gen. Eric Holder urged full disclosure to help restore trust in a department that had been beleaguered by criticism that it had twisted the law to fit the Bush administration's political ends.

The release of the memos was driven to a large degree by an ACLU lawsuit aimed at forcing the government to disclose secret rulings issued in connection with the CIA's detention and interrogation programs.

But Obama's decision to shield agency employees from legal liability drew criticism from human-rights groups. Holder said the Justice Department would provide legal representation to CIA employees facing legal challenge in the United States or overseas.

Meanwhile, Spain's attorney general Thursday rejected opening an investigation into whether six Bush administration officials sanctioned torture against terror suspects at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying a U.S. courtroom would be the proper forum. Candido Conde-Pumpido's remarks reduce the chance of a case moving forward against the Americans, including former U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales.

[Source: By Greg Miller and Josh Meyer, The Chicago Tribune, Washington Bureau, 17Apr09]

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