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Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian
August 24, 2009
US attorney general pushes ahead with investigation as CIA releases previously hidden documents
The US attorney general, Eric Holder, is poised to order a special criminal investigation into CIA agents who may have gone too far in the interrogation of al-Qaida and other suspects taken after the 9/11 attacks, it emerged today.
Holder’s intention to push ahead with an investigation came on the day that the CIA was ordered by the court to release hundreds of pages of previously hidden documents detailing how interrogations were conducted.
The attorney general’s imminent decision to order the investigation runs counter to the wishes of the CIA director, Leon Panetta, who was appointed by Barack Obama, and has argued in favour of looking forward rather than back.
The Washington Post today revealed that Holder is planning to name John Durham, a career justice department prosecutor, to lead the inquiry. His mandate will be relatively narrow: to look at whether there is enough evidence to launch a full-scale criminal investigation of current and former CIA agents.
The White House tried to take some of the sting out of the release of the reports by announcing that there will be a special group set up which is specifically trained in interrogations, to be housed in the FBI headquarters rather than at the CIA.
The reports are the subject of a long-running freedom of information battle between the CIA and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A copy was published last year, while George Bush was in power, but almost the entire contents were blacked out. Obama promised earlier this year to release as much as possible.
The main report, written in 2004, was an investigation by the then CIA inspector general, John Helgerson, into allegations that some agents went beyond the guidelines for interrogations. Also released were two other reports, one from 2004 and the other from 2005, on the value of intelligence obtained by what the US calls “high-level detainees”, mainly al-Qaida suspects held at GuantÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡namo Bay.
The US media reported Holder was sickened by what he read in Helgerson’s report. In 2004 the justice department opted against prosecution. Holder would have to reverse that decision.
Jameel Jaffer, a spokesman for the ACLU, said: “It is encouraging that the justice department’s ethics office recognises that prior decisions to cut off investigations of serious abuse cases were ill-advised, and that those who broke the law must be held accountable.”
Bill Burton, the deputy White House press secretary, stonewalled today when asked by reporters whether he supported going after people who may have committed crimes.
The prospect of prosecutions has already led to rows between the Obama administration and members of the Bush administration led by the former vice-president Dick Cheney, who said CIA morale would be damaged.
Cheney, speaking before publication, said that the files would show that vital information about al-Qaida was obtained by interrogation.
Panetta today came to the defence of his agents, echoing Cheney’s argument. “The CIA obtained intelligence from high-value detainees when inside information on al-Qaida was in short supply. Whether this was the only way to obtain that information will remain a legitimate area of dispute, with Americans holding a range of views on the methods used.”
In a note sent to the CIA workforce today ahead of the report’s release, Panetta echoed another argument from the Bush administration officials, that the justice department had looked at Helgerson’s report in 2004 and decided against prosecution, except in the case of one contractor.
He added: “My primary interest – when it comes to a programme that no longer exists – is to stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given. That is the president’s position, too.”
Five interrogation techniques
An interrogator scraped Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri with a stiff brush, which was described as the sort used to clean stubborn dirt from a bath. It cut and bruised Nashiri.
An Arabic speaker posing as an agent of a Middle Eastern security force told Nashiri his captors could kidnap his mother and other family members. The threat was intended to make Nashiri believe that his relatives would be sexually abused before his eyes. Another interrogator told Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that his captors would kill his children if another terrorist attack hit the US.
Smoke in the face
An interrogator told investigators he blew tobacco smoke into detainees’ faces in order to sicken them and make them vomit, the report found.
Interrogators pressed their fingers into a detainee’s carotid artery in order to constrict the flow of blood to his brain until the detainee began to pass out, the report revealed. The process was repeated three times.
An addendum to the report indicates that CIA officers were authorised to force detainees to wear nappies for up to three days on end. The unclassified portions of the report do not indicate whether the technique was actually used.
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