President Obama threw open the curtain Thursday on harsh interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration against terrorism suspects, but he said CIA officers would not be prosecuted for their actions.
Responding to a deadline in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Obama administration released four Justice Department memos providing a legal rationale for techniques that the ACLU and other critics likened to torture — and that Obama has ended by executive order.
Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder said CIA interrogators will not be held accountable because their actions had been sanctioned by the Justice Department. Holder also said the government would defend them against any lawsuits and seek to indemnify them against monetary judgments.
"This is a time for reflection, not retribution," Obama said in a statement. "We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."
Whether to release the memos had been the subject of debate for weeks. Obama decided to put them out because much of the information had been publicized. Even so, he defended "maintaining the classified nature of secret activities."
Many of the techniques used by CIA operatives against top 9/11 terrorism suspects, including Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had been acknowledged in recent years, some by President George W. Bush himself. However, the CIA destroyed videos documenting the tactics' use.
The newly released memos shed light on approved tactics. For instance, the memos authorized interrogators to confine Zubaydah in a small box with an insect he was led to believe could sting him — a technique intended to play on his fear of bugs. The memos also allowed captives to be kept awake for up to 180 hours.
The memos set parameters for waterboarding, which simulates drowning. They discuss ways to avoid injuring captives when shoving them into flexible walls. And they detail limits on forcing prisoners into stressful positions and confining them in small, dark places.
A March 2005 memo says 28 of 94 CIA detainees were exposed to enhanced interrogations in "varying degrees." A May 2005 memo cautions that using several techniques in tandem could, in some circumstances, violate prohibitions against torture.
CIA Director Leon Panetta, in a letter to his employees, said the Justice Department "guided CIA's detention and interrogation program." Panetta noted it was approved by Bush and his top national security staff.
Lawmakers who fought for the memos' release applauded it. "The legal analysis and some of the techniques in these memos are truly shocking," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich. "Hopefully, these practices have been ended for all time."
Marc Thiessen, former chief speech writer for Bush, called Obama's action "outrageous" because it gives al-Qaeda the chance to practice resistance.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero criticized the decision not to prosecute those who authorized and conducted the interrogations. "There can be no more excuses for putting off criminal investigations of officials who ... broke the law," Romero said.
A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll in late January found that nearly two-thirds of Americans favored investigations into the torture allegations. Four in 10 wanted criminal probes.
Contributing: David Jackson, Kevin Johnson, Jill Lawrence and Donna Leinwand