President Obama’s release Thursday of four top-secret memos - which gave bracing details about enhanced interrogation techniques used on terrorist suspects during the Bush administration - was welcomed by civil liberties groups but condemned by at least one former top intelligence official, who said the president was endangering the country.
Mr. Obama, in a statement issued after he left the country for a four-day trip to Mexico and a Latin American summit, said the disclosure was required to protect the U.S. from false accusations about its actions in the past.
“Exceptional circumstances surround these memos and require their release,” the president said. “Withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States.”
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But the 126-page document release did include massive amounts of detail never before divulged by the government, including clinical explanations of how interrogation techniques were performed and the intended effects on detainees.
One previously undisclosed detail included the revelation that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba placed insects into a “confinement box” that held al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, knowing that the suspected terrorist appeared “to have a fear of insects.”
Instructions from the Aug. 1, 2002, memo by Jay S. Bybee, then-director of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), read that in order for this treatment to avoid reaching the legal threshold of torture, interrogators could tell Zubaydah that the insects were “stinging” creatures but “you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain.”
Zubaydah’s questioners intended only to place “a harmless insect … such as a caterpillar” into the box.
The memos, written in 2002 and 2005 by OLC to provide legal justification for specific techniques, also address waterboarding. Mr. Bybee ruled in his 2002 memo that the practice of simulated drowning went only halfway toward meeting the legal definition of torture under U.S. law, constituting “a threat of imminent death” but not resulting in “prolonged mental harm.”
Section 2340A of the U.S. code on criminal procedure says that torture includes actions “intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”
A May 30, 2005, memo by OLC chief Steven G. Bradbury laid out the three types of enhanced techniques, naming them as “conditioning,” “corrective” and “coercive.”
“Conditioning” techniques, such as nudity, dietary manipulation and sleep deprivation, were used to “demonstrate to the [detainee] that he has no control over basic human needs.”
“Corrective” techniques included facial slaps, abdominal slaps, facial holds and “attention grasps,” and were intended “to dislodge expectations that the detainee will not be touched.”
“Coercive” measures were considered the “more effective tools.” They included shoving a detainee against a wall that was designed to make a loud noise and startle the detainee, dousing them with cold water, stress positions, forced standing for long periods of time, cramped confinement and waterboarding.
Declaring that he has stopped the use of the techniques in question - which are considered to be torture by many human rights groups and activists - Mr. Obama also announced that his administration will protect any intelligence officials who used the measures on detainees, because they were acting on the guidance of Bush-era government attorneys.
“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,” Mr. Obama said.
But this statement appeared to leave open the door for future government action against lawyers who wrote the memos, and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union did not rule out filing civil suits against intelligence personnel.
Amrit Singh, an ACLU staff attorney, was unequivocal about what should happen to lawyers such as Mr. Bybee.
“Now that the memos have been made public, high-ranking officials in the Bush administration must be held accountable for authorizing torture,” Ms. Singh said.
The memos’ release was criticized by former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, who told the Associated Press that the details would give terrorists a detailed guide on how to prepare to resist interrogation.
In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Hayden said that Mr. Obama has rendered his own study of what techniques should be used a pointless exercise. When Mr. Obama issued an executive order on his third day in office stopping the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and limiting intelligence officials to using the Army Field Manual, he also instituted a six-month review of whether there might be a need for measures beyond the manual.
Mr. Hayden said that “as a practical matter, when you announce a technique you effectively take it off the table.”
Mr. Obama’s release of operational detail, Mr. Hayden argued, is “effectively saying there’s nothing in the cabinet.”
But another former top intelligence official, who spoke to The Times on the condition that his name not be used, said that Mr. Hayden’s critique was overblown and that “most of the detail is already out there.”
“I think it will irritate some, although I think circumstances are such that it was inevitable that they put something out,” the official said. “Most of the people I know who were involved are accepting of the decision, not surprised, and just moving on.”
The official did say that the release of the information may add to fear among intelligence specialists that if they are asked to act “on the outer edge” of what is permissible in the future, they may be targeted after the fact.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney already has accused Mr. Obama of making the U.S. less safe by his decision to suspend these techniques.
One of the 2005 memos released Thursday stated that “the CIA believes that enhanced interrogation techniques remain essential to obtaining vital intelligence necessary to detect and disrupt … emerging threats.”
Mr. Cheney did not return requests for comment. A spokesman for former President George W. Bush also did not respond to an e-mail request.
The White House released the memos in response to a lawsuit by the ACLU, but did not redact the amount of information they had the option to withhold under the State Secrets Act.
Mr. Obama said in a memo to CIA employees that was made public that he “did not make this decision lightly.”
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair called the descriptions of the techniques “graphic.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who wants to set up a commission to investigate the use of these techniques, called the memos “chilling.”
Mr. Blair, however, defended the techniques in a statement, saying that it is although “those methods, read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, appear graphic and disturbing,” Americans should remember the context in which the decision was made to allow the procedures.
“All of us remember the horror of 9/11. For months afterwards, we did not have a clear understanding of the enemy we were dealing with, and our every effort was focused on preventing further attacks that would kill more Americans,” Mr. Blair said.
But Mr. Hayden said that the release “is going to incite everyone who wants to dig deeper.”
“This is not the end,” he said. “And good people who were doing their duty as they saw it will be pulled through a knothole.”
The memos released by the White House on Thursday do not constitute the totality of jurisprudence produced by the U.S. government since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. There are at least 12 other memos from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that pertain to detainee treatment and interrogation that remain secret, along with at least six others that have been made public, according to a count by the ACLU.
Three of the memos released Thursday represent the Bush administration’s attempt to rebuild a legal framework for enhanced interrogation techniques after several earlier memos were rejected in 2004 by then-OLC head Jack Goldsmith.
Mr. Goldsmith rescinded much of the rationale for aggressive interrogation that relied, in his opinion, too heavily on an overly broad interpretation of the president’s authority in wartime, which was created in 2001 and 2002 by then-OLC head Mr. Bybee and one of his deputies, John Yoo.
Mr. Goldsmith’s replacement, Mr. Bradbury, made clear in his 2005 memos that he was not relying on the legal arguments that have been largely attributed to Mr. Yoo.
Mr. Yoo did not respond to a request for comment.
• Eli Lake contributed to this report.