US President Barack Obama absolved CIA officers from prosecution for harsh, painful interrogation of terror suspects on Thursday, even as his administration released memos from former US president George W. Bush’s administration graphically detailing, and authorizing, such grim tactics as slamming detainees against walls, waterboarding them and keeping them naked and cold for long periods of time.
The documents published on Thursday showed legal officials from Bush’s era arguing that tactics such as waterboarding, face slapping, the use of insects to scare prisoners and sleep deprivation did not amount to torture.
“This is a time for reflection, not retribution,” Obama said. “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.”
“I have already ended the techniques described in the memos,” Obama said in a written statement released shortly after he arrived on a visit to Mexico.
However, he said: “The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world ... We must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.”
In a statement, Obama said the tactics adopted by the administration of his predecessor “undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer.”
He said he was releasing the documents to avoid “an inaccurate accounting of the past,” which would “fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States.”
“In releasing these memos, 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,” he said in a statement.
The four memos offered a stunning glimpse inside the covert interrogation program introduced after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, which critics say amounted to torture, and Obama said undermined the US’ moral authority.
Dennis Blair, the director of National Intelligence, pledged that Washington would not use similar methods in the future.
A federal court had given the government until Thursday to either turn over the memos in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union or explain why they cannot be released.
While slamming Obama’s decision not to prosecute those carrying out the tactics, Human Rights Watch welcomed the possibility that those at the top of the chain of command could face justice.
“Notably, the president left open the possibility of prosecuting those higher up the chain who wrote the opinions and authorized the CIA to use abusive interrogation techniques and torture,” the group said in a statement.
The memos were authored by Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury, who at the time were lawyers for Bush’s Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel. Bybee is currently a federal judge.
Meanwhile, Spanish prosecutors yesterday formally recommended against an investigation into allegations that six senior Bush administration officials gave legal cover for the torture of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
While the ruling is not binding, it all but dooms prospects for the case against the men going forward. On Thursday, Spain’s top law-enforcement official Candido Conde-Pumpido said he would not support an investigation against the officials — including former US attorney general Alberto Gonzales.