WASHINGTON – The CIA has suspended the use of extraordinary interrogation techniques approved by the White House pending a review by Justice Department and other administration lawyers, intelligence officials said.
The “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as the CIA calls them, include feigned drowning and refusal of pain medication for injuries. The tactics have been used to elicit intelligence from al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
Current and former CIA officers aware of the recent decision said the suspension reflects the CIA’s fears of being accused of unsanctioned and illegal activities, as it was in the 1970s. The decision applies to CIA detention facilities, such as those around the world where the agency is interrogating al Qaeda leaders and their supporters, but not military prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere.
“Everything’s on hold,” said a former senior CIA official aware of the agency’s decision. “The whole thing has been stopped until we sort out whether we are sure we’re on legal ground.” A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the issue.
CIA interrogations will continue but without the suspended techniques, which include feigning suffocation, “stress positions,” light and noise bombardment, sleep deprivation, and making captives think they are being interrogated by another government.
The suspension is the latest fallout from the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and is related to the White House decision, announced Tuesday, to review and rewrite sections of an Aug. 1, 2002, Justice Department opinion on interrogations that said torture might be justified in some cases.
Although the White House repudiated the memo Tuesday as the work of a small group of lawyers at the Justice Department, administration officials now confirm it was vetted by a larger number of officials, including lawyers at the National Security Council, the White House counsel’s office and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.
The memorandum was drafted by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to help the CIA determine how aggressive its interrogators could be during sessions with suspected al Qaeda members. The legal opinion was signed by Jay S. Bybee, then head of the office and now a federal judge. The office consists mainly of political appointees and is considered the executive branch agencies’ legal adviser. Memos signed by the head of the office are given the weight of a binding legal opinion.
A Justice Department official said Tuesday at a briefing that the office went “beyond what was asked for,” but other lawyers and administration officials said the memo was approved by the department’s criminal division and by the office of Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.
In addition, Timothy E. Flanigan – then deputy White House counsel – discussed a draft of the document with lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel before it was finalized, the officials said. David S. Addington, Cheney’s counsel, also weighed in with remarks during at least one meeting he held with Justice lawyers involved with writing the opinion. He was particularly concerned, sources said, that the opinion include a clear-cut section on the president’s authority.
That section of the memo has become among the most controversial within the legal community that has analyzed the opinion since it was made public by the Washington Post. During Tuesday’s briefing, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales called the commander in chief section “unnecessary.”
The Justice Department, he said, “will make a decision as to whether or not that is something that should continue to remain in the opinion.” Justice Department officials said it would be scrapped.
The commander in chief section of the opinion said laws prohibiting torture do “not apply to the President’s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants” in his role as commander in chief. Congress, which has signed international laws prohibiting torture, “may no more regulate the President’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield,” according to the August memorandum.
Another element of the opinion criticized by outside lawyers is that it defines torture as pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” That standard would allow a variety of tactics that would be considered cruel and inhumane under international law, legal experts have said.
At a briefing Tuesday, Gonzales declined to answer repeated questions about how the legal opinion, or the upcoming review of it, affected the CIA. But, he added, “As far as I’m told, every interrogation technique that has been authorized throughout the government is lawful and does not constitute torture.”