Bob Franken

Attorney General Eric Holder Begins Criminal Investigation After Release of “Torture Memo”


With the release of a graphic report describing the “unauthorized, improvised, inhumane” treatment of U.S. detainees, Attorney General Eric Holder has named a special prosecutor to investigate whether CIA interrogators and contractors violated the law by using brutal tactics to pry information from prisoners. The court-ordered disclosure of the 2004 CIA inspector general’s report, which was kept secret for five years, describes alleged threats to kill the children of one high-ranking terror suspect and a threat to sexually assault the mother of another.

As a result, Holder has now appointed a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogators and contractors who might have violated domestic and international law. He chose career Justice Department attorney John Dunham to examine more than a dozen cases to see if a full-scale criminal probe is warranted.

Dunham has extensive experience with the CIA and its interrogation practices. For two years, he has been exploring obstruction of justice and false statement charges in connection with the destruction of video tapes that purportedly showed some of the harsh tactics that were sometimes employed.

Holder had seen the 2004 inspector general’s report while it was still classified and was said to be “disgusted” by its contents. The public version, which is heavily redacted, describes a catalogue of brutal tactics. It was released Monday after a federal judge sided with the American Civil Liberties Union in a freedom of information lawsuit that was bitterly opposed by top intelligence officials.

The allegations in the report include an instance when interrogators allegedly threatened a detainee by bringing a loaded pistol and a power drill into the room. In another instance, gunfire exploded in an adjoining area to make a prisoner believe he would be killed.

The report also describes threats against the lives of detainees’ families. It cites one agent telling alleged 9/11 architect Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed that if there was another attack against the United States, “We’re going to kill your children.” Another was accused of telling a different suspect that he would sexually assault his mother in front of him if he didn’t cooperate. That interrogator denied the accusation.

According to the inspector general, the interrogation tactics were not within established guidelines. The guidelines themselves have been strongly criticized as political rationalizations by the Bush administration for practices that violated both U.S. and international law.

CIA Director Leon Panetta issued a statement insisting that “the challenge is not the battles of yesterday but those of today and tomorrow.” As for the claim the harsh techniques produced valuable information, as former Vice President Cheney has said, Panetta said that “will remain a legitimate area of dispute.”

The Inspector general also drew no conclusion about that, writing that quantifying the success of so called “Enhanced Interrogation” is “a more subjective process and not without some concern”. He did however state that the “detention and interrogation of terrorists has provided intelligence that has enabled the identification and apprehension of other terrorists and warned of terrorists plots planned for the United States and around the world.”

Still, the CIA report went on, with the abuses, “the agency faces potentially serious long term political and legal challenges.”

Also Monday, the White House announced it had decided to take control of interrogations away from the CIA. A presidential spokesman at Martha’s Vineyard, where the first family is vacationing, told reporters that the National Security Council will oversee a new unit called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. It will be based at FBI headquarters.

While the unit refines techniques, it will, for starters, rely strictly on the Army Field Manual for guidance on acceptable practices. The manual not only bans techniques such as waterboarding — to say nothing of death threats — it also prohibits sleep deprivation and forcing prisoners to endure loud music, among other things.

The new group, known as HIG, is the outgrowth of recommendations of a task force on detainee matters that was appointed by the White House. A CIA spokesman says his agency welcomes the change.

As for the past practices, Holder has now opened an investigation that could lead to criminal charges. He is certainly well aware that he’ll also open a lot of wounds. Critics charge he will be authorizing a political prosecution by looking backward to the previous administration. On the other side are those who argue that until those who violated the law with their brutality are brought to justice, the country cannot fully move forward.

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