By Carrie Johnson and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 17, 2009
Justice Department documents released yesterday offer the fullest account to date of Bush administration interrogation tactics, including previously unacknowledged strategies of slamming a prisoner into a wall and placing an insect near a detainee terrified of bugs.
Authorities said they will not prosecute CIA officers who used harsh interrogation techniques with the department's legal blessing. But in a carefully worded statement, they left open the possibility that operatives and higher-level administration officials could face jeopardy if they ventured beyond the boundaries drawn by the Bush lawyers.
The four memos, dated from 2002 to 2005, contain few redactions, despite a fierce battle within the highest ranks of the Obama White House about the benefits of releasing the information. Intelligence experts said the documents could ignite calls in Congress and among international courts for a fresh, independent investigation of detainee treatment.
The documents lay out in clinical, painstaking detail a series of practices intended to get prisoners to share intelligence about past wrongdoing and future attacks. The legalistic analysis under anti-torture laws and the Geneva Conventions is at odds with the severity of the strategies, which include 11-day limits on sleep deprivation as well as waterboarding and nude shackling.
Step by step, experts considered the legality of slapping prisoners' faces and abdomens, dousing them with water, and confining them in small boxes, with the last strategy limited to two hours. The techniques were designed to inspire "dread," according to a footnote.
Some of the practices were used against more than a dozen detainees whom authorities considered to be of particularly high intelligence value after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. But President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. reassured CIA employees anew yesterday that interrogators would not face criminal prosecution so long as they followed legal advice.
Both Obama and Holder for months have indicated a desire to look forward rather than conduct investigations that could alienate the intelligence community and incite partisan rancor. "This is a time for reflection, not retribution," Obama said in a statement, even as he bemoaned the "dark and painful chapter in our history."
A multiagency task force Obama established in his first days in office is evaluating other options for questioning such suspects and is exploring whether individual CIA officers may have committed crimes by overstepping the limits imposed by lawyers.
"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 in a statement.
For the first time, officials said yesterday that they would provide legal representation at no cost to CIA employees subjected to international tribunals or inquiries from Congress. They also said they would indemnify agency workers against any financial judgments.
The announcement appeared to be designed to soothe concerns expressed by top intelligence officials, who argued in recent weeks that the graphic detail in the memos could bring unwanted attention to interrogators and deter others from joining government service.
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told employees that the interrogation practices won approval from the highest levels of the Bush administration and that they had nothing to fear if they followed the legal guidance from the Justice Department.
"You need to be fully confident that as you defend the nation, I will defend you," Panetta said.
Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, cited his experience after taking part in the unpopular Vietnam War. "We in the intelligence community should not be subjected to similar pain," he said.
For years, the documents were sought by lawmakers, civil liberties advocates and defense attorneys for men detained in U.S. military prisons. Holder and White House counsel Gregory B. Craig advocated publishing the sensitive documents in their entirety, saying the move would fulfill the president's campaign promises of transparency and underscore the new team's break with the past.
The Bush Justice Department wrote three of the memos in 2005 in response to a request for legal advice from John A. Rizzo, senior deputy general counsel at the CIA, who wanted to know whether the agency's procedures for questioning al-Qaeda operatives complied with laws and international treaties. Those memos were prepared by Steven G. Bradbury, who led the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, an elite band of constitutional scholars who offer advice to the executive branch.
The fourth document dates to August 2002 and was signed by Jay S. Bybee, who served in the Office of Legal Counsel before becoming a federal appeals court judge. That memo involves a single prisoner, alleged al-Qaeda associate Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, whose interrogations began in May 2002.
Administration lawyers gave oral advice to CIA officials in July and offered written versions of their analysis that summer, giving rise to questions among congressional Democrats about whether officials who participated in the interrogation before the advice was proffered could face legal exposure.
Interrogators told Justice Department lawyers that they sought to exploit Abu Zubaida's fear of bugs by telling him that they had put a stinging insect in a small, confined box where he was held for brief periods, when in fact they would introduce a harmless caterpillar instead.
Intelligence officials said yesterday that they had not actually used the practice, which won approval from administration lawyers. In the bulk of their analysis, the lawyers appeared to put significant weight on the question of whether the tactics would cause severe, lasting pain.
Another memo, from May 2005, signed by Bradbury, addressed how CIA officials could employ different combinations of techniques, including a practice known as walling, in which interrogators would press a prisoner's shoulder blades against a fake wall, producing loud noises.
"A detainee may be walled one time (one impact with the wall) to make a point, or twenty to thirty times consecutively when the interrogator requires a more significant response to a question," according to the memo.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said that the documents are "chilling" and that their content "is as alarming as I feared it would be."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who has investigated detainee abuse, said that "we must acknowledge and confront these abuses" in order to "restore America's image as a country that not only espouses ideals of human rights, but lives by them."
The memos were released as part of a long-standing case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which have sought photos and papers documenting the government's treatment of detainees captured after Sept. 11, 2001.
The Senate intelligence committee, led by Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is investigating alleged interrogation abuses in an initiative she announced this year.
Calls from interest groups for criminal prosecution of former administration officials who authorized the tactics have intensified with each release of fresh information about the operations.
"Whether or not CIA operatives who conducted waterboarding are guaranteed immunity, it is the high level officials who conceived, justified and ordered the torture program who bear the most responsibility for breaking domestic and international law, and it is they who must be prosecuted," executives at the Center for Constitutional Rights said yesterday.
But it is unclear whether Obama administration officials have the appetite to prosecute their predecessors and what evidence authorities might use to do so. If they are relying on the accounts of detainees, lawyers said yesterday, government officials surely would require corroboration.
Among the most comprehensive documents on the alleged torture is a confidential report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which chronicled accounts by 14 detainees of their treatment at the hands of CIA officers between 2002 and 2006. Those accounts closely match the techniques outlined in the memos released yesterday.
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.