John Durham speaks to reporters on the steps of U.S. District Court in New Haven, Conn., in April 2006. Attorney General Eric Holder has picked Durham to investigate allegations of CIA mistreatment of terrorism suspects.
John Durham speaks to reporters on the steps of U.S. District Court in New Haven, Conn., in April 2006. Attorney General Eric Holder has picked Durham to investigate allegations of CIA mistreatment of terrorism suspects. Bob Child/AP
A career federal prosecutor was put in charge of a criminal investigation into allegations that the CIA tortured terrorism detainees more than five years ago, an inquiry that could prove to be uncomfortable for the spy agency at the heart of the effort against the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Attorney General Eric Holder chose John Durham, a Republican-appointed prosecutor, to head the criminal probe after the Justice Department's ethics office recommended a re-examination of a Bush administration-era decision to refrain from prosecuting several cases related to CIA interrogations.
Durham's appointment was one of several developments Monday in the saga of the CIA's treatment of terrorism suspects, and the political and legal fallout from the alleged abuses.
The Obama administration announced that it will create a team of interrogators drawn from the FBI and other agencies that will be overseen by the White House, shifting authority away from the CIA.
And the Justice Department released a 2004 CIA inspector general's report that offered chilling new details of several interrogations, in which CIA interrogators violated the agency's own guidelines by conducting mock executions or threatening to kill a suspect's family.
John Durham is a veteran federal prosecutor who has handled organized crime cases. He was named to head the investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes in 2005. Now, he's also being asked to look into reports of CIA mistreatment of terror suspects.
Holder originally became concerned about possible violations of the law after reading the 2004 report on the agency's interrogation and detention program.
The report, which was released Monday with many pages still entirely redacted, concluded that the CIA's interrogation of top al-Qaida detainees produced intelligence that "enabled the identification and apprehension of other terrorists." But, the report added, the program also employed "unauthorized, improvised, inhumane and undocumented detention and interrogation techniques."
The inspector general also found that the CIA's assessments of whether detainees were withholding information were not always supported by intelligence, which means that harsh interrogation techniques may have been used "without justification."
The CIA Counterterrorist Center's "assessments to the effect that detainees are withholding information are not always supported by an objective evaluation of the available information, but are too heavily based, instead, on the presumption of what the individual might know," the report said.
The inspector general's report was written in 2004, but only a heavily censored version was made public. A judge ordered more disclosure, leading to Monday's release. A separate internal Justice Department ethics report on the professionalism of lawyers who approved the questioning techniques has not yet been released.
CIA officials defend the agency by pointing out that the interrogation and detention program was created from scratch in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
CIA Director Leon Panetta called the release of the report "an old story."
"The CIA obtained intelligence from high-value detainees when inside information on al-Qaida was in short supply," Panetta said in a statement Monday. "Whether this was the only way to obtain that information will remain a legitimate area of dispute, with Americans holding a range of views on the methods used."
President Obama had been reluctant to conduct exhaustive inquiries into the actions of his predecessor, but he has been under increasing pressure by Democrats and interest groups to hold CIA interrogators accountable for allegations of torture.
"The president has said repeatedly that he wants to look forward, not back," said White House spokesman Bill Burton. "Ultimately, determinations about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the attorney general."
But the Obama White House did strip the CIA of its lead role in interrogating terrorism suspects, creating a new office that will be overseen by the White House to run all future interrogations.
The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group will be managed by the FBI, although it will continue to draw upon interrogation experts at the CIA, the Defense Department and other agencies. A director for the office has yet to be named, but the No. 2 official will come from a U.S. intelligence agency.
Under new rules, U.S. interrogators will be required to adhere to the Army Field Manual's regulations on interrogations. This will limit the use of some harsher techniques, including sleep deprivation, while other controversial techniques — including waterboarding — have already been banned.
The newly released CIA inspector general's report offers some new, more detailed accounts of some of the harshest interrogation sessions.
John Helgerson, the CIA's inspector general at the time, and his staff spent more than a year interviewing more than 100 officials, poring over 38,000 pages of documents, and reviewing 92 videotapes of interrogations. (The videotapes were later destroyed.) The team also traveled to secret CIA prisons to watch interrogations in person.
Helgerson found that CIA interrogators told al-Qaida suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri that if he did not talk, "We could get your mother in here." The report added that it appeared to some observers that the interrogator then threatened the detainee's mother with sexual abuse, a charge the interrogator denied.
"The debriefer used an unloaded semiautomatic handgun as a prop to frighten al-Nashiri into disclosing information," the report says, describing another incident. "On what was probably the same day, the debriefer used a power drill to frighten al-Nashiri. With [redacted] consent, the debriefer entered the detainee's cell and revved the drill while the detainee stood naked and hooded."
The report adds that the interrogator did not request authorization or report the use of these unauthorized techniques to CIA officials at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va..
In a separate session, suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was told, "We're going to kill your children."
In the fall of 2002, interrogators went to the trouble of staging a complicated mock execution to persuade Nashiri to cooperate, according to the report. While Nashiri was being interrogated, someone fired a gun just outside the door as other CIA officers began yelling and screaming.
"When the guards moved the detainee from the interrogation room, they passed a guard who was dressed as a hooded detainee, lying motionless on the ground, and made to appear as if he had been shot to death," the report says. The inspector general added that several officials said the ruse was not effective.
Another controversial procedure was the "pressure point" technique, where the interrogator pressed down on a suspect's carotid artery. The inspector general describes an interrogator using the technique and watching a shackled detainee "to the point that the detainee would nod and start to pass out." Then, the detainee was shaken to wake him up. This process was repeated for a total of three times.
Even some techniques approved by the Justice Department at the time drew Helgerson's scrutiny. He noted that the CIA's own regulations required that doctors and mental health experts be present during the use of certain techniques, including waterboarding, or controlled drowning.
"The fact that precautions have been taken to provide on-site medical oversight in the use of all [enhanced interrogation techniques] is evidence that their use poses risks," he concluded.
Senior CIA officials told the inspector general that information from the harsh interrogations helped complete the agency's portrait of al-Qaida and also helped reveal details of terrorist plots, including a plan to attack the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan; a plot to hijack airplanes and fly them into Heathrow Airport in London; and one to cut the lines of New York's suspension bridges to make them collapse.
Indeed, CIA officials justified the use of waterboarding on three detainees specifically because they were believed to possess information on "imminent threats."
But the report is clearly skeptical of these assertions. "This review did not uncover any evidence that these plots were imminent," the inspector general concluded.
The release of the report is likely to stoke further controversy over the CIA's past conduct, despite attempts by CIA officials to play down its significance.
"This is in many ways an old story," Panetta said in his statement. "For the CIA now, the challenge is not the battles of yesterday, but those of today and tomorrow."
When Helgerson's report was first distributed inside the government, his critical findings, along with his graphic accounts of harsh interrogation techniques, prompted the CIA to briefly suspend its interrogations in 2004 until Justice Department lawyers reaffirmed their approval of the program.
Over the past few years, the report had become highly sought-after by the CIA's critics. A version was released in May 2008 after a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union, but it was so heavily redacted that even the table of contents was almost entirely blacked out. The deletions prompted accusations that the CIA was trying to suppress embarrassing, or even illegal, activities.
The Obama administration had agreed to re-examine the report after an ACLU appeal, but many in the intelligence community opposed releasing additional details, warning it could expose sensitive information about the CIA's methods.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said last week that releasing more of the report "is just destructive to the agency, and unfair to the good people who did what they did out of duty, not out of enthusiasm."
Ari Shapiro and Dina Temple-Raston contributed to this report.