WASHINGTON — The Justice Department made public detailed memos on Thursday describing brutal interrogation techniques used by the CIA, as President Barack Obama sought to reassure the agency that CIA operatives who carried out the techniques would not be prosecuted.
In dozens of pages of dispassionate legal prose, the methods approved by the Bush administration for extracting information from senior al-Qaida operatives are spelled out in careful detail -- from keeping detainees awake for up to eleven straight days, to placing them in a dark, cramped box, to putting insects into the box to exploit their fears.
The interrogation methods were authorized beginning in 2002, and some were used as late as 2005 in the CIA's secret overseas prisons. The techniques were among the Bush administration's most closely guarded secrets, and the documents released Thursday afternoon marked the most comprehensive public accounting to date of the program.
Some Obama administration officials have labeled one of the 14 approved techniques, waterboarding, as illegal torture. During war crimes trials after World War II, the United States prosecuted some Japanese interrogators for waterboarding and other methods detailed in the memos.
The release of the documents came after a bitter debate that divided the Obama administration. Fueling the urgency of the discussion was Thursday's court deadline in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued the government for the release of the Justice Department memos.
Together, the four memos give an extraordinarily detailed account of the CIA's methods and the Justice Department's long struggle, in the face of graphic descriptions of brutal tactics, to square them with international and domestic law. Passages describing forced nudity, slamming into walls, prolonged sleep deprivation and dousing with 41 degree water alternate with elaborate legal arguments concerning the international Convention against Torture.
The documents were released with minimal redactions, indicating that Obama sided against current and former CIA officials who for weeks had pressed the White House to withhold sensitive details about specific interrogation techniques. CIA Director Leon Panetta had argued that revealing such information set a dangerous precedent for future disclosures of intelligence sources and methods.
'Dark and painful'
A more pressing concern for the CIA is that the revelations might give new momentum to a full-blown investigation into Bush administration counterterrorism programs and possible torture prosecutions.
Within minutes of the release of the memos, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the memos illustrated the need for his proposed independent "Commission of Inquiry," which would offer immunity in return for candid testimony.
Obama condemned what he called a "dark and painful chapter in our history," and said that the interrogation techniques would never be used again.
But he also repeated his opposition to a lengthy inquiry into the past, saying that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."
Obama said that CIA officers who were acting on the Justice Department's legal advice would not be prosecuted, but left open the possibility that anyone who acted without legal authorization could still face criminal penalties.
He did not address whether lawyers who authorized the use of the interrogation techniques should face some kind of penalty.
The four legal opinions, released in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the ACLU, were written in 2002 and 2005 by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, the highest authority in interpreting the law in the executive branch.
All legal opinions on interrogation were revoked by Obama on his second day in office, when he also outlawed harsh interrogations and ordered the CIA's secret prisons closed.
The memos include what in effect are lengthy excerpts from the agency's interrogation manual, laying out with precision how each method was to be used.
But a footnote to a 2005 memo makes clear that the rules were not always followed. The waterboard was used "with far greater frequency than initially indicated" and with "large volumes of water" rather than the small quantities in the rules, one memo says, citing a 2004 report by the CIA's inspector general.
The ACLU said the memos clearly describe criminal conduct and underscore the need to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate who authorized and carried out torture.
But Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, cautioned that the memos were written at a time when CIA officers were frantically working to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Those methods, read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, appear graphic and disturbing," said Blair in a written statement.
"But we will absolutely defend those who relied on these memos."