WASHINGTON -- The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is taking steps to review the U.S. government's past and future treatment of terrorism suspects, including the launch of a criminal investigation into CIA questioning of terror suspects during the Bush administration.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced the appointment of a federal prosecutor to investigate alleged abuses by officers and contractors who worked for the intelligence agency during the years that President George W. Bush was in the White House.
Those years saw Bush and other top administration officials often defending the use of harsh interrogation techniques, such as the simulated drowning known as waterboarding, as essential methods of obtaining critical information from terror suspects.
News of the criminal probe into past actions was accompanied by the release of a newly declassified report from the U.S. inspector-general's office on CIA interrogation techniques.
The report was written in 2004 but was classified until the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the government for its release.
"The goal is to shed as much transparency as possible upon the abuses of the past eight years," says Alexander Abdo, a legal fellow with the ACLU's National Security Project.
"We're also hopeful that with that transparency will come a form of accountability. As the president said a few days after taking office, 'Transparency is a big part of accountability, and accountability is essential for a functioning democracy.' "
Among the revelations in the 2004 inspector-general's report is confirmation that CIA officers and private contractors carried out mock executions and threatened a prisoner with a power drill and gun.
The report also says interrogators told the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that his children would be killed, and suggested to another suspect that his family would be sexually assaulted in front of him. In one instance, a gun was fired in a cell next to where a prisoner was being interrogated, suggesting that another suspect had been shot.
Threatening a prisoner with imminent death is a violation of the U.S. federal torture statute.
'Field Manual' Model
The administration of President Barack Obama said that going forward, all U.S. interrogators will have to follow rules laid out in the "Army Field Manual," which lays out detailed descriptions of what questioners can and cannot do while questioning a prisoner and leaves no room for individual interpretation.
It specifically prohibits techniques known to have been used in recent years, such as forcing detainees to undress, threatening them with military dogs, exposing them to extreme heat or cold, and waterboarding.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says the investigations are important for restoring the world's image of the United States, which was severely damaged after revelations of detainee abuse at U.S. military facilities from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan and Iraq.
"If there was an element of cruelty or blatant criminality to any of these investigations that went even beyond the guidance of the day, I think there is a reasonable basis for considering prosecution," O'Hanlon says.
"The broader effort to tell the world that we are a country that respects the law and treats all human beings equally and honors human rights -- for that reason, it's important to send a message that we are not trying to whitewash past abuses. On the other hand, if people were following orders, or what they thought to be orders, I think it would be wrong to prosecute them. So I think you have to handle it case by case."
Earlier this year, Obama declassified top secret CIA memos showing how Bush officials authorized what they called "enhanced interrogation techniques." He has said that CIA officers who followed Justice Department guidance at the time should not be prosecuted. In this new probe, former White House officials who approved the harsh measures are not expected to be singled out.
"The president has said repeatedly he thinks that we should be looking forward, not backward," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "He does agree with the attorney general that anyone who conducted actions that had been sanctioned should not be prosecuted. But ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is prosecuted are up to the attorney general."
The CIA had no comment on the release of the report, but a spokesman appeared to try and distance the agency from the behavior of individual interrogators by saying it "in no way endorsed behavior that went beyond the formal guidance."
As details of alleged past wrongs by U.S. intelligence officers filtered out, the White House laid out its plan to prevent abuses in the future with the formation of a new detainee interrogation unit to be directly supervised by the White House and comprised of experts from across a range of government agencies.
'Important Role To Play'
White House spokesman Bill Burton said the unit will be called the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group and be led by and headquartered at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He said the decision to remove the CIA as the lead agency in suspect interrogations would not diminish its contribution to intelligence gathering.
"The CIA obviously has a very important role to play as it relates to interrogations. They've done a brilliant job in doing it so far, gathering intelligence," Burton said. "A lot of people don't know that half of the FBI's mission is actually to gather intelligence, so what this does is it houses all these different elements under one group where they can best perform their duties. The intelligence community is going to have a deputy who will be in that group, and obviously the CIA will be very involved in this."
Burton also said the Obama administration will continue the Bush administration's practice of sending terror suspects to third countries for detention, a practice known as rendition. He said the White House will not send suspects to countries where torture is allowed and will monitor their conditions closely. The State Department will take a larger role in the practice than it did during the Bush years, officials said.
Human rights advocates quickly condemned that decision because they say that promises of humane treatment, known as "diplomatic assurances," are not a protection against abuse.