Friday, 17 April 2009
Obama exempts CIA 'torture' staff
Critics say the methods approved in the memos amount to torture
US President Barack Obama says CIA agents who used harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects during the Bush era will not be prosecuted.
Mr Obama banned the use of methods such as sleep deprivation and simulated drowning in his first week in office.
He has now released four memos detailing techniques the CIA was able to use under the Bush administration.
Rights groups have criticised his decision to protect CIA agents involved in the interrogation procedures.
Amnesty International said the Department of Justice appeared to be offering a "get-out-of-jail-free card" to individuals who were involved in acts of torture.
The Centre for Constitutional Rights, which has championed the legal rights of the "war on terror" detainees, also expressed its disappointment.
"It is one of the deepest disappointments of this administration that it appears unwilling to uphold the law where crimes have been committed by former officials," it said in a statement.
The administration did not say that protection would extend to CIA agents who acted outside the boundaries laid out in the memos, or to those non-CIA staff involved in approving the interrogation limits.
That leaves open the possibility that those lawyers who crafted the legal opinions authorising the techniques, one of whom is now a federal judge, could yet face legal action.
But the BBC's North America editor Justin Webb, in Washington, says it seems that the Obama administration does not want any prosecutions and would like the matter closed.
The Obama administration said the move reiterated its previously-stated commitment to end the use of torture by its officers, and would protect those who acted within the limits set out by a previous legal opinion.
Announcing the release of the four memos, Attorney General Eric Holder said the US was being "consistent with our commitment to the rule of law".
"The president has halted the use of the interrogation techniques described in these opinions, and this administration has made clear from day one that it will not condone torture," he said.
The four secret memos detail the legal justification for the Bush-era CIA interrogation programme, whose methods critics say amounted to torture.
Mr Obama gave an assurance that "those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice... will not be subject to prosecution".
One of the documents contained legal authorisation for a list of specific harsh interrogation techniques, including pushing detainees against a wall, facial slaps, cramped confinement, stress positions and sleep deprivation.
The memo also authorises the use of "waterboarding", or simulated drowning, and the placing of a detainee into a confined space with an insect.
Critics of the Bush-era interrogation programme say the newly-released memos provide evidence that many of the methods amount to torture under US and international law.
"Bottom line here is you've had crimes committed," Amnesty International analyst Tom Parker told the BBC.
"These are criminal acts. Torture is illegal under American law, it's illegal under international law. America has an international obligation to prosecute the individuals who carry out these kind of acts."
Mr Parker said the decision to allow the use of insects in interrogation was reminiscent of the Room 101 nightmare described by George Orwell in his seminal novel, 1984.
The approved tactic - to place al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, who is afraid of insects, inside a box filled with caterpillars but to tell him they were stinging insects - was never used.
Despite that, the memo was "incredibly depressing reading if you're somebody who loves America", Mr Parker said.
During his first week in office, President Obama issued an executive order officially outlawing the use of harsh interrogation techniques by the CIA, and forcing the agency to adhere to standards laid out in the US Army Field Manual.
The release of the memos stems from a request by civil rights group the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Waterboarding: Aimed at simulating sensation of drowning. Used on alleged 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Insect: Harmless insect to be placed with suspect in 'confinement box', suspect to be told the insect would sting. Approved for Abu Zubaydah, but not used
Walling: Detainee slammed repeatedly into false wall to create sound and shock
Sleep deprivation: Detainee shackled stading up. Used often, once for 180 hours