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CIA fears torture prosecutions
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Only some of the secrets of US ‘ghost’ prisons have been revealed

THE CIA fears some of its operatives could face prosecution for torturing high-level terrorist suspects, despite President Barack Obama’s promise of legal immunity.

The confidential US Department of Justice guidelines on interrogating high-level detainees, which were made public last week, provide only a small window into the secret prisons or “black sites” run by the CIA.

“These are the first dominoes,” said Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit that forced the release of the memos. “It will be difficult for the new administration to argue now that other documents can be lawfully withheld.”

The memos, drawn up by Bush administration officials and lawyers, detailed what was permissible, such as placing detainees in a cramped box, “walling” them by slamming them against a wall, dousing them with a hose, depriving them of sleep, confining them with insects and simulating drowning - “waterboarding”.

A former senior CIA official at the time of the 9/11 attacks told The Sunday Times that there was more to uncover about the ghost prisons.

Fourteen senior Al-Qaeda suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the attacks, were transferred to Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2006, but up to several dozen other high-level detainees passed through the prisons.

“We know how many were released, but we don’t know how many detainees were taken there. Did anybody die while they were waterboarding? Did anybody go too far?” the former official asked.

It is clear that some operatives exceeded the guidelines. One memo from December 2004 said waterboarding was used “with far greater frequency than initially indicated . . . with large volumes of water”, rather than those specified by the rules.

The lawyers and officials responsible for drawing up the “torture” memos also faced calls for their prosecution from some members of Congress.

John Conyers, chairman of the House of Representatives judiciary committee, said: “If our leaders are found to have violated the strict laws against torture, either by ordering these techniques without proper authority, or by knowingly crafting legal fictions to justify torture, they should be criminally prosecuted.”

Those at risk include Alberto Gonzales, the attorney-general under Bush, who convened a crucial meeting of justice department and defence department officials in 2002. America was at war, he said, and it was necessary to “lean forward”.

John Yoo, the deputy assistant attorney-general, drafted a memo stating that physical torture “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”.

Yoo and fellow officials Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury, who issued the memos, are already subjects of an ethics investigation by the justice department.

The former senior CIA official said: “We knew this was going to come back and bite us . . . These people weren’t judges, they were just lawyers in the justice department. It was kind of like us telling ourselves it was okay to do it.”

The official recalled the atmosphere at the time of the 9/11 attacks. “A colleague of mine said, ‘I know this is all wrong but I keep picturing these people jumping out of windows and falling out of buildings’.”

The meticulous description of harsh interrogation techniques in the memos seemed chilling enough, but the reality was far worse, the official said.

It was one thing to describe a “facial slap . . . with fingers slightly spread” or pouring cold water “from a container or a hose without a nozzle”, as in the memos. When done continuously for an hour at a time, it was “something you want to stop”.

Many CIA officers have been through survival, evasion, resistance and escape training, where they experienced the same techniques used against Al-Qaeda suspects. “They lock you in a cage, dump you in water, slap you in the head, but I knew they weren’t going to kill me when it happened to me,” the former official said.

“The idea was, if you can go through it, so can the terrorists. But it goes against our idea of who are the good guys. This was supposed to be what happened if you were captured by the North Koreans or Chinese.”

The release of the memos provoked a furious response from former Bush officials. “Terrorists are now aware of the absolute limit of what the US government can do to extract information from them,” wrote Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, and Michael Mukasey, a former US attorney-general, in The Wall Street Journal.

“President Barack Obama has tied not only his hands but also the hands of any future administration faced with the prospect of attack.”

The treatment of Abu Zubaydah, a senior Al-Qaeda suspect who was slammed against a wall, confined in a box and waterboarded, has aroused particular controversy. At one stage CIA officers asked for legal permission to use his fear of insects against him.

The plan was to shut him in a confined space with a caterpillar and tell him it was a stinging insect, according to one of the memos, although the threat was never carried out.

Zubaydah was thought to be a “third or fourth man in Al-Qaeda” who had been “involved in every major terrorist operation” carried out by the group, according to a legal opinion signed in 2002 by Bybee, who was head of the justice department’s office of legal counsel.

However, it emerged that Zubaydah was more of a facilita-tor, who helped to arrange false documents and travel for jihad-ists. Although he is said to have revealed useful information about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, which may have helped to lead to his arrest in Pakistan, some sources say the claims are exaggerated.

The waterboarding began after Zubaydah had been held for two months and had already divulged everything of significance.

One former intelligence official with direct knowledge of his case told The New York Times it had been distressing for operatives to watch his torment: “Seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”

Tapes showing Zubaydah’s interrogation were destroyed by the CIA in 2005, partly to protect the identity of the officers involved. However, the law may catch up with the interrogators if they are believed to have exceeded their authority.

Obama has promised legal immunity only to those who operated within the justice department’s guidelines.

Fear of prosecution led the CIA to oppose the publication of the memos without a guarantee of legal immunity.

Leon Panetta, the CIA director, said in a statement to staff that the release of the memos was “not the end of the road on these issues”.

“More requests will come - from the public, from Congress and the courts - and more information is sure to be released,” he said. There are calls from Congress for a truth commission as well as further lawsuits pending.

“The ones most involved in counterterrorism feel they have very exposed flanks in terms of both their personal and professional futures,” a senior Bush official told The New York Times.

Feelings are running high among CIA operatives, who feel they are being made scapegoats. “A close friend told me, ‘Wait till the next terrorist attack, they’ll be begging us to do it again’,” a former official said.

Source >  TIMES online | Apr 19

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