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Obama Releases Bush-Era Interrogation Memos

President Barack Obama has sought to publicly distance his administration from some of the tactics of the previous one.
(RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has made it a priority during his first months in office to assure the world that the United States will not use techniques that human rights groups consider to be torture when interrogating terrorism suspects.

On April 16, the White House released four formerly classified legal documents prepared by the former Bush administration to approve the use of harsh interrogation methods.

As President Obama released the four documents, he issued a statement underlining his determination to break with the past that they represent.

"We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history," his statement read. "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."

The four documents are legal opinions prepared by the Bush administration to justify and recommend the use of harsh interrogation techniques upon terrorism suspects.

The Bush-era legal opinions present a long list of coercive techniques and argue that they do not equal torture because they do not inflict severe mental or physical pain.

On the basis of these legal opinions, the CIA used many of the techniques to interrogate suspects in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Among the techniques cited in the documents is simulated drowning -- known as water boarding. Also mentioned is the use of a plastic neck collar to slam detainees into walls and extended sleep deprivation.

No Prosecutions

Criticizing the documents on April 16, Obama said the use of such techniques "undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer."

And 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."

But the president also said that those CIA agents who conducted interrogations in accordance with the Bush-era directives could not now be punished for what they did.

"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," Obama's statement read.

However, the administration did not say whether such protection from prosecution would extend to CIA agents who acted outside the directives in the documents or to non-CIA staff involved in approving interrogation practices.

Accountability Questions

Obama's release of the Bush-era documents immediately drew both praise and criticism in the United States.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, Jameel Jaffer, said, "The memos should never have been written, but we're pleased the new administration has made them public."

But another human rights group, Amnesty International, faulted Obama for not prosecuting the CIA interrogators. Executive Director Larry Cox said, "The Department of Justice appears to be offering a get-out-of-jail-free card to individuals who...were involved in acts of torture."

Tom Porteous, director of the Human Rights Watch office in London, also criticized Obama's decision to shield agents from possible prosecution.

"President Obama has said that there is nothing to be gained from 'laying blame for the past.' But actually this is not a tenable position in a functioning democracy," Porteous says.

"Accountability is absolutely necessary in a democracy. It's also necessary to restore America's reputation, which has been very badly damaged by this whole story, and it's also necessary to assure that these crimes don't happen again in the future."

The former head of the CIA under President George W. Bush also criticized Obama's actions, but for different reasons. Michael Hayden said the release of the documents will now make CIA officers more timid and will make their allies in foreign intelligence agencies reluctant to cooperate because it shows Washington "can't keep anything secret."

The release of the documents comes after a federal court had given the government until April 16 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.

Making the documents public continues Obama's policy of reversing in a highly visible way the most controversial policies of the Bush administration's "war on terror."

Obama banned the use of methods such as sleep deprivation and simulated drowning in his first week in office. He has also announced that he will close the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay within a year.

During his trip to Europe earlier this month, Obama made a point of telling European audiences that the United States now "does not and will not torture."