/ 2 April 2008

US memo authorised extreme interrogation methods

A newly declassified 2003 Justice Department memo gave United States military interrogators broad authority to use extreme methods in questioning al-Qaeda detainees, US media said on Wednesday.

The memo — sent to the Pentagon as it struggled to establish guidelines for its interrogators — argued that the US president’s wartime authority exempted them from US and international laws banning cruel treatment.

”If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al-Qaeda terrorist network,” the Washington Post cited the memo as saying.

”In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.”

The 81-page legal opinion was written at a time when the Pentagon was trying to come up with a list of approved interrogation methods for use on detainees at the US ”war on terror” prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been forced in December 2002 to suspend a list of aggressive techniques due to objections from senior military lawyers.

But, largely because of the memo, a Pentagon working group approved in April 2003 the continued use of ”extremely aggressive tactics”, including stress positions, nudity, exposure to dogs and hooding, the Post said.

And although it was withdrawn nine months after it was written, the Justice Department document helped create the environment for abuse of prisoners by US army personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, experts said.

”What else could have been the source of belief in Iraq that the gloves were off and all laws could be disregarded with impunity?” the paper quoted law professor and former Justice Department counsel Martin Lederman as saying.

”It created a world in which everyone on the ground believed the laws did not apply. It was a law-free zone.”

The newly released document is similar to one written by the same Justice Department official in August 2002 giving the CIA expansive authority to interrogate detainees.

They are part of the legal framework President George Bush’s administration built following the September 11 2001 attacks in the United States to detain and interrogate ”enemy combatants” around the world.

Congress in 2005 limited interrogation tactics the Defence Department can use, but no such limits have been placed on the CIA.

The Bush administration has still got other documents on interrogation practices under lock and key, according to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy.

”The administration continues to shield several memos even from members of Congress,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. – Sapa-AFP