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The Justice Department has withdrawn all of these memos.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.