WASHINGTON // Even as his administration released memos painting the clearest picture yet of interrogation tactics approved for use on terror suspects during the Bush years, Barack Obama has indicated the US government will not prosecute low-ranking CIA officials who were simply following orders.
"It is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution," the US president said in a statement, in which he referred to the CIA's interrogation programme as a "dark and painful chapter" for the United States. "This is a time for reflection, not retribution." While Mr Obama stressed the importance of protecting the "unknown" members of the intelligence community who serve "on the front lines of a dangerous world", he said nothing of higher-ranking officials who authored the legal opinions and provided authorisation for the techniques, potentially leaving the door open for future prosecution.
Eric Holder, the attorney general; Leon Panetta, the CIA director; and human rights groups have equated at least one technique known as "waterboarding", which simulates the sensation of drowning, to torture. Mr Obama changed the interrogation policies in one of his first acts as president. In a separate statement on Thursday, Mr Holder said the justice department would provide free legal representation for any CIA employee who faces legal proceedings, stemming from potential investigations by the US Congress or international tribunals. Mr Holder said the government also would indemnify those employees from any financial judgments. The announcement came on the same day the justice department released four secret memos on the Bush-era interrogation programme that provide legal justification for the use of some of the harshest techniques.
The memos, from 2002 and 2005, detail a range of tactics, including "walling", in which detainees are slammed against a wall, the facial slap or "insult" slap, cramped confinement, sleep deprivation, the use of insects in a "confinement box", the use of nudity, and the waterboard, among others. In them, two former top officials in the Office of Legal Counsel argued the techniques did not violate US and international statutes prohibiting torture because they did not cause severe, prolonged pain or suffering.
There was a heated debate within the Obama administration as to whether to release the memos, which were the subject of a litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union. Mr Holder had sought to make them public, while CIA officials pushed back. In an op-ed yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, Gen Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, and Michael Mukasey, the former attorney general, criticised the release as "unsound", saying it "assures that terrorists are now aware of the absolute limit of what the US government could do to extract information from them, and can supplement their training accordingly and thus diminish the effectiveness of these techniques".
The administration's promise not to prosecute effectively brings an end to a worrisome period for intelligence officers. Many feared the US government, which had once approved the interrogation tactics, would now summon those who used them to court. firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com