Opening yet another can of worms

Attorney-General Eric H. Holder Jr. named a veteran federal prosecutor on Monday to examine abuse of prisoners held by the Central Intelligence Agency, after the Justice Department released a long-secret report showing interrogators choked a prisoner repeatedly and threatened to kill another detainee’s children.

Mr. Holder chose John H. Durham, a prosecutor from Connecticut who has been investigating the CIA’s destruction of interrogation videotapes, to determine whether a full criminal investigation of the conduct of agency employees or contractors is warranted. The review will be the most politically explosive inquiry since Mr. Holder took over the Justice Department in February.

The decision was a significant blow to the CIA, and Mr. Holder said he would be criticised for undercutting the intelligence agency’s work. He said that he agreed with President Barack Obama’s oft-expressed desire not to get mired in disputes over the policies of the former President, George W. Bush, but that his review of reports on the CIA interrogation programme left him no choice.

“As Attorney-General, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law,” Mr. Holder said in a statement. “Given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.”

The Attorney-General said his decision to order an inquiry was based in part on the recommendation of the Justice Department’s ethics office, which called for a new review of several interrogation cases.

Mr. Holder said he was also influenced by a 2004 report by the then-CIA Inspector-General, John L. Helgerson, on the agency’s interrogations. The report was released on Monday under a court order in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Although large portions of the 109-page report are blacked out, it gives new details about a range of abuses inside the CIA’s overseas prisons, including suggestions about sexually assaulting members of a detainee’s family, staging mock executions, intimidation with a handgun and power drill, and blowing cigar and cigarette smoke into prisoners’ faces to make them vomit.

The report found that the interrogations obtained critical information to identify terrorists and stop potential plots and said some imprisoned terrorists provided more information after being exposed to brutal treatment.

But the Inspector-General’s review raised broad questions about the legality, political acceptability and effectiveness of the harshest of the CIA’s methods, including some not authorised by the Justice Department and others that were approved, like the near-drowning technique of water-boarding.

“This review identified concerns about the use of the water-board, specifically whether the risks of its use were justified by the results, whether it has been unnecessarily used in some instances,” the report said, and whether the frequency and volume of water poured over the prisoner’s mouth and nose exceeded the Justice Department’s legal authorisation.

In what appeared to be a response to the Justice Department’s release, the CIA, later on Monday, released previously secret agency reports from 2004 and 2005 that detailed intelligence produced by the interrogation programme.

One of the reports calls the programme “a crucial pillar of U.S. counterterrorism efforts” and describes how interrogations helped unravel a network headed by an Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali. The other report details information elicited from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, chief planner of the September 11, 2001, attacks, saying it “dramatically expanded our universe of knowledge on al-Qaeda’s plots.”

Those reports, which the former Vice-President, Dick Cheney, had sought to have released earlier this year, do not refer to any specific interrogation methods and do not assess their effectiveness.

The Inspector-General’s report, by contrast, offers details of abusive methods. During one session, a CIA interrogator threatened Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, charged with plotting the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, by saying that if he did not cooperate with his captors, “we could get your mother in here” and “we can bring your family in here.”

According to the report, the interrogator wanted Nashiri to infer for “psychological” reasons that his female relatives might be sexually abused.

In another questioning, the report said, one CIA interrogator told investigators that Mohammed was told that if there was another attack on American soil, the CIA would “kill your children.” Mohammed’s young sons were in the custody of Pakistani and American authorities at the time.

Among a litany of CIA tactics, the report describes the “hard takedown,” when a detainee was grabbed and thrown to the floor before being moved to a sleep-deprivation cell. It details baths given to Nashiri, saying he was sometimes scrubbed with “the kind of brush one uses in a bath to remove stubborn dirt” to induce pain. In July 2002, the report says, a CIA interrogator grabbed a detainee’s neck to restrict the prisoner’s carotid artery until he began to faint. Another officer then “shook the detainee to wake him,” and the “pressure point” technique was repeated twice more.

Interrogators also staged a mock execution in 2002 to intimidate a detainee. CIA officers began screaming outside the room where he was being interrogated. When leaving the room, he “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.”

In 2003, CIA officers began using another technique — called “water dousing” — that involved laying a detainee on a plastic sheet and pouring water over him for 10 to 15 minutes.

According to the report, an interrogator believed this was an effective technique, and sent a cable back to CIA headquarters requesting guidelines.

A return cable explained that a detainee “must be placed on a towel or sheet, may not be placed naked on the bare cement floor, and the air temperature must exceed 65 degrees if the detainee will not be dried immediately.”

Such detailed guidelines reflected concern throughout the CIA about the potential legal consequences for agency officers. Officers “expressed unsolicited concern about the possibility of recrimination or legal action” and said “they feared that the agency would not stand behind them,” the report said.

The CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, issued a statement to employees Monday that carefully avoided defending the brutal treatment while expressing support for the agency’s efforts.

Mr. Panetta wrote that he was not “eager to enter the debate, already politicised, over the ultimate utility of the agency’s past detention and interrogation effort.” He said the programme had produced crucial intelligence but added that use of the harsh methods “will remain a legitimate area of dispute.”

Members of Congress from the left and the right criticised Mr. Holder’s decision.

Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, criticised the potential focus on interrogators, suggesting that ignoring Justice Department lawyers and senior Bush administration officials in the investigation had echoes of the Abu Ghraib scandal, when “lower ranking troops who committed abuses were hung out to dry.”

But Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the Justice Department inquiry risked disrupting current counterterrorism operations. He said abuse charges have already been “exhaustively reviewed.” — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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