More Bush-Era Torture Memos Released

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The Obama administration releases more Bush administration memos on the use of torture against terrorism suspects. The Justice Dept. is expected to announce that it will not prosecute CIA officials who approved harsh interrogation procedures.


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This afternoon the Obama administration released four legal documents that provide a window into the CIA's controversial interrogation program. The memos describe in detail, which techniques interrogators were allowed to use against high-level terrorism detainees during the Bush administration. At the same time, Attorney General Eric Holder told CIA officials that he would not prosecute interrogators who relied on those memos. NPR's Ari Shapiro joins me in the studio and Ari, what are these memos and why did they come out today?

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, it's about 100 pages total, four memos from 2002 and 2005. And it was basically the culmination of a five-year court battle that the ACLU had been fighting with the administration and it looked like the judge was probably going to order the memos to be released, so the Obama administration went ahead and declassified them, and one thing that's striking is that there're very few redactions. You can kind of read through these memos more or less beginning to end.

SIEGEL: So what's the new information?

SHAPIRO: It's a very detailed breakdown of exactly what CIA interrogators can do, when, and how they can do it. Here's a list of some of the interrogation tactics that are approved. There's slapping, sleep deprivation, stress positions, slamming a detainee into a flexible wall, confinement in a small space. And the detail is amazing, about for example, if they're imposing dietary restrictions. These memos say you must give the person this many calories per day, this much water per day or if they're dousing the detainee in cold water the memo says if the water is this temperature you have to give the person this many minutes to recover, for example.

In one instance - this is very notable - they said that they could put a detainee who had a profound fear of bugs in a small box with an insect and tell him that it was a poisonous stinging insect. In fact, it was a caterpillar of some sort.

SIEGEL: Now the technique that generated the most controversy and the most discussion over the past couple of years was water boarding.


SIEGEL: What do we learn about water boarding?

SHAPIRO: Water boarding of course is controlled drowning. And these memos describe it as the most intense of the CIA interrogation techniques, sort of in a category of its own. One memo says we find that the use of the water board constitutes a threat of imminent death. But this memo concluded that it's not torture because it does not cause severe physical or mental pain or suffering. The Obama administration of course...

SIEGEL: Not even mental suffering?

SHAPIRO: Not even - not prolonged mental suffering. Not severe mental suffering which was the sticking point in this memo. The Obama administration has said that water boarding is torture. But today several administration officials said that people who relied on these legal memos won't be prosecuted for relying on them in good faith.

SIEGEL: Yeah tell us more about that message - the message that the White House has sent to the CIA today.

SHAPIRO: Well, it was almost a full court press. There were messages from CIA director Leon Panetta, President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and basically the thrust was as you CIA officials defend the nation, I will defend you. President Obama called the period when these memos were written - a dark and painful chapter in our history. But he said at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.

Attorney General Holder said 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. The back story here is that CIA officials, former CIA directors, had fought pretty hard behind the scenes to prevent the release of these memos. This was a way of sort of calming the concerns that they were being made public.

SIEGEL: The former director Michael Hayden also said this was wrong to have done this and informs people of all the interrogation techniques that they might face indeed if they come in the CIA hands.

SHAPIRO: Exactly.

SIEGEL: The end of the story?

SHAPIRO: No. The ACLU which fought for the release of these memos is now going to fight for the release of related documents that were kept classified while these memos are being kept classified. And of course there's an investigation into the Justice Department lawyers who wrote these memos.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: It's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

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CIA Officials Won't Face Charges For Waterboarding

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The Obama administration has released four Bush-era legal memos describing "enhanced interrogation techniques" CIA interrogators were allowed to use on some terrorism detainees. As the Justice Department released the documents, Attorney General Eric Holder told CIA officials that they would not be prosecuted for having followed the legal guidance in the memos.

The memos, from 2002 and 2005, document what President Obama called "a dark and painful chapter in our history."

The documents go into more detail than had been previously revealed about tactics the Justice Department approved for CIA use against so-called high value detainees. The list includes slapping, nudity, stress positions and slamming detainees into a wall. CIA officials were told they could put one detainee who was afraid of bugs in a small box with an insect.

The controlled drowning technique known as waterboarding was described as "the most intense of the CIA interrogation techniques." One memo says waterboarding constitutes a threat of imminent death.

But in that same memo, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel concluded that because waterboarding does not cause severe pain or suffering, "the use of these procedures would not constitute torture."

Fred Hitz, who served as CIA inspector general in the 1990s, read the memos and said, "I just don't see how in the world that kind of advice can be given as a legal opinion as if you were advising on whether a deed of trust was properly executed." He added, "These are human beings we're talking about, and it's not something that the United States — much less the Central Intelligence Agency — should be involved in."

The Justice Department has withdrawn all of these memos. Holder sent a message to CIA officials Thursday saying they would not be prosecuted for following the memos' legal guidance.

"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," he said.

CIA Director Leon Panetta also sent a message to agency employees, saying that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "CIA responded, as duty requires."

In the past few weeks, top current and former CIA officials had pushed to keep the memos secret. After the Obama administration declassified the documents Thursday, former CIA Director Michael Hayden told The Associated Press that the United States is less safe now. He said agents will be more timid and foreign allies will be less likely to cooperate with American intelligence officials because "they can't keep anything secret."

Some human rights groups criticized the decision not to prosecute people for these actions. Amnesty International called it a "get out of jail free card" for people who committed torture. But Obama said in a statement, "Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

The release of the memos ended a five-year court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"It's legal reasoning that is ends-driven," said Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU's National Security Project. "It's legal reasoning that's meant to reach the result that the Bush administration wanted to reach."

Jaffer said he was surprised at the detail in the documents. They explain which abusive interrogation techniques can be combined, how many calories a detainee must be given when he's being deprived of food, and how many minutes detainees need to recover from being doused with cold water. The amount of time depends on the water's temperature.

One former CIA official speaking on background said that level of detail shows how carefully tailored the program was.

"I agree with that," said former CIA official Hitz, "but so were all of the experiments that were done by the Nazi doctors during the time of the Holocaust. They kept excellent records of the body temperature of the prisoner and all that stuff; it didn't make it any less torture."

Jaffer says there are more fights coming. Other documents remain classified because they refer to these memos. With these new declassifications, the ACLU plans to push for other dominoes to fall.

And, although the Obama administration has said it will not prosecute CIA officials who relied on the legal guidance in the memos, there is an ongoing investigation into the Justice Department lawyers who wrote the memos and whether they violated professional legal standards.



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