Barack Obama releases documents showing CIA ‘torture’ during Bush-era

April 16, 2009

Ankle handcuffs locked to the chair and floor in an interrogation room at Guantanamo Bay

(Haraz Ghanbari/AP)

Mr Obama ruled out prosecutions, saying the US needed a time of reflection, not retribution

President Obama last night released documents detailing the harsh CIA interrogation techniques that had been kept secret by the Bush Administration as he declared it was time to move beyond “a dark and painful chapter in our history”.

Four memos published yesterday showed that terror suspects had been subjected to tactics such as being slammed against walls wearing a special plastic neck collar, kept awake for up to 11 straight days, simulated drowning known as “waterboarding” and being placed in a dark, cramped box.

The CIA also approved exploiting one detainee’s fear of insects by putting caterpillars in the box with him. Others were kept naked and cold for long periods, denied food, shackled for prolonged periods or had their family threatened.

Many senior figures in the Obama Administration, as well as human rights groups, believe such practices amounted to torture.

Both the President and Attorney General Eric Holder, however, reassured CIA operatives yesterday that those involved in the interrogations would not face criminal prosecution so long as they had adhered the legal advice given to them at the time from the Justice Department. “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past,” said the President. “This is a time for reflection, not retribution.”

CIA Director Leon Panetta told employees that the interrogation practices had been approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration and that they had nothing to fear if they had followed the rules. “You need to be fully confident that as you defend the nation, I will defend you,” he said.

The techniques were used against 14 detainees that the US considered to have high intelligence value after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2005. These included the alleged al-Qaeda mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had initially refused to answer questions about other plots against the US.

Bush Adminstration officials believe that the “enhanced interrogations” subsequently used on him helped avert further attacks including one to crash a hijacked airliner into a tower in Los Angeles.

The memos, however, show just how much effort went into the squaring the techniques with the letter, if not the spirit, of international laws against torture. Interrogators were told not to allow a prisoner’s body temperature or food intake to fall below a certain level, because either could cause permanent damage. Passages describing forced nudity, slamming into walls, sleep deprivation and the dousing of detainees with water as cold as 41 degrees were interspersed with complex legal arguments about what constituted torture.

One memo authorised a method for combining multiple techniques, a practice that human rights lawyers claim crosses the line into torture even if any individual methods did not.

Although some sections were still redacted last night, the CIA had unsuccessfully argued for large parts of the documents to be blacked out. Gen Michael Hayden, who led the CIA during the Bush Adminstration, said: “If you want an intelligence service to work for you, they always work on the edge. That’s just where they work.” Foreign partners will be less likely to cooperate with the US because the release shows it “can’t keep anything secret.”

Mr Obama, however, said much of the information had already been widely publicised and it was important to emphasise that the programme no longer exists as it once did. Withholding the memos, he suggested, “could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States”.

The documents were disclosed to meet a court-approved deadline in a legal case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s impossible not to be shocked by the contents of these memos,” said ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer. “The memos should never have been written, but we’re pleased the new administration has made them public.”

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