President Bush's aides yesterday disavowed an internal Justice Department opinion that torturing terrorism suspects might be legally defensible, saying it had created the false impression that the government was claiming authority to use interrogation techniques barred by international law.
Responding to pressure from Congress and outrage around the world, officials at the White House and the Justice Department derided the August 2002 legal memo on aggressive interrogation tactics, calling parts of it overbroad and irrelevant and saying it would be rewritten.
In a highly unusual repudiation of its department's own work, a senior Justice official and two other high-ranking lawyers said that all legal advice rendered by the department's Office of Legal Counsel on the subject of interrogations will be reviewed.
As part of a public relations offensive, the administration also declassified and released hundreds of pages of internal documents that it said demonstrated that Bush had never authorized torture against detainees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In doing so, the administration revealed details of the interrogation tactics being used on prisoners, an extraordinary disclosure for an administration that has argued that the release of such information would help the enemy.
The legal memos and policy directives provided a new level of insight into the administration's internal debate and decision-making over how far it should go to gain information from terrorism suspects, including:
* A Feb. 7, 2002, memo signed by Bush saying that he believed he had "the authority under the Constitution" to deny protections of the Geneva Conventions to combatants picked up during the war in Afghanistan but that he would "decline to exercise that authority at this time."
"Our nation recognizes that this new paradigm -- ushered in not by us, but by terrorists -- requires new thinking in the law of war," Bush wrote.
The memo, which had not been scheduled to be declassified until 2012, settled a bitter dispute between the State and Justice departments over the issue. It outlined Bush's rationale -- announced the day he signed it -- that some of the Geneva Conventions would apply to fighters for Afghanistan's Taliban but not to members of the al Qaeda terrorist network. Bush added that "our values as a Nation . . . call for us to treat detainees humanely."
* New details on the range of severe interrogation techniques approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for use at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including stripping detainees to humiliate them, using dogs to scare them and forcing them to remain in stressful positions. Those measures were later curtailed after military lawyers in the field questioned their legality.
* Documents showing that U.S. military interrogators were driven to seek more aggressive interrogation techniques because, in the words of Army Gen. James T. Hill, chief of the U.S. Southern Command in October 2002, "some detainees have tenaciously resisted our current interrogation methods."
* Military lawyers and policy officials alike were preoccupied during their deliberations by the possibility that officers, intelligence officials and law enforcement authorities could be prosecuted for violating the constraints of U.S. law or international conventions protecting detainees.
White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales told reporters yesterday that Bush's aides decided to make the disclosures, because they "felt that it was harmful to this country, in terms of the notion that perhaps we may be engaging in torture." The steps followed a string of polls showing sinking public confidence in Bush's handling of the war on terrorism.
None of the documents provided by the White House governed practices at Abu Ghraib and other military prisons in Iraq, although some of the ideas approved at least temporarily -- such as stripping prisoners -- would be mirrored in the graphic photos that drew international condemnation and heavy scrutiny of U.S. detention practices.
Earlier yesterday, Bush said Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, a U.S. ally in Iraq, had brought up the practices at Abu Ghraib. Bush said he had "assured him that these soldiers do not represent what Americans think."
"Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country: We do not condone torture," Bush said. "I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being."
In the White House briefing, the aides took the extraordinary step of publicly questioning advice provided by top administration lawyers, with Gonzales saying that the internal administration debate included "unnecessary, over-broad discussions."
At issue was an Aug. 1, 2002, memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to Gonzales. A Justice Department official said yesterday that the administration planned to scrap a provision in it opining that interrogators who torture al Qaeda or Taliban captives could be exempt from prosecution under the president's powers as commander in chief. "I don't believe it was necessary," the official said. "The president never asked us to overrule" laws barring torture, he said. Bush has not authorized any interrogations that would employ methods outside the law, he said.
Gonzales said that memo and a related Pentagon memo had been meant to "explore the limits of the legal landscape," and to his knowledge had "never made it to the hands of soldiers in the field, nor to the president." He acknowledged that some of the conclusions were "controversial" and "subject to misinterpretation."
The documents that were released and the White House briefing focused on military interrogations and left many questions unanswered. Gonzales refused to comment on techniques used by the CIA, beyond saying that they "are lawful and do not constitute torture." He also would not discuss the president's involvement in the deliberations.
Democrats on Capitol Hill said they would continue pushing for more documents. "The stonewalling in the prison abuse scandal has been building to a crisis point," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "Now, responding to public pressure, the White House has released a small subset of the documents that offers glimpses into the genesis of this scandal."
The administration had argued that supplying details of interrogation techniques would make it easier for detainees to resist. Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II said that there was "some value in having some uncertainty" for terrorism suspects but that "under the circumstances, this was the right thing to do."
Staff writers Dana Priest and R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.