Prisoners could be kept awake for more than a week. They could be stripped of their clothes, fed nothing but liquid and thrown against a wall 30 consecutive times.
In one case, the CIA was told it could prey on a top Al Qaeda prisoner’s fear of insects by stuffing him into a box with a bug. When all else failed, the CIA could turn to what a Justice Department memo described as “the most traumatic” interrogation technique of all -- waterboarding.
Baring what he called a “dark and painful chapter in our history,” President Obama on Thursday released a collection of secret Justice Department documents that provided graphic guidance to the CIA on how far it could go to extract information from terrorism suspects.
The memos provide the most detailed account to date not only of the interrogation tools the CIA employed against Al Qaeda suspects in secret prisons around the world but the legal arguments the Bush administration constructed to justify their use.
At the same time, Obama assured CIA employees and other U.S. operatives that they would be protected from prosecution or other legal exposure for their roles in the nation’s counter-terrorism efforts over the last eight years.
“This is a time for reflection, not retribution,” Obama said in a message delivered to CIA employees, explaining his decision to release a collection of documents that agency veterans and some senior officials in his administration had fought to keep sealed.
The memos were crafted by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, a unit that was at the center of a series of debates during the Bush administration over the limits of executive power and counter-terrorism tactics.
One of the authors was then-Assistant Atty. Gen. Jay S. Bybee, who since has been confirmed as a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The release of the memos was seen as a test of the Obama administration’s commitment to its pledge of transparency, as well as its promise to roll back Bush administration counter-terrorism policies.
But the decision was met with criticism among conservatives and CIA veterans, who warned that the highly detailed documents would serve as a counter-interrogation training manual for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said the release of the memos would make the country less safe as enemies learned about techniques that might be approved again in the future.
The documents go beyond cataloging the methods the CIA was authorized to use and spell out in detail how they were to be administered.
Prisoners could be kept shackled in a standing position for as many as 180 hours. The documents also noted that more than a dozen CIA prisoners had been deprived of sleep for at least 48 hours, three for more than 96 and one for the nearly eight-day maximum allowed. Another document seemed to endorse sleep deprivation for 11 days.
In some cases, the memos address specific interrogation plans. When the CIA proposed putting an Al Qaeda suspect in a small box with an insect, the Justice Department endorsed the idea but added conditions it said were necessary to keep the agency from violating the international convention against torture.
“If you do so . . . you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain,” said a 2002 memo sent to the CIA’s acting general counsel. A footnote clarified that the CIA never carried out the insect interrogation plan.
The documents include elaborate legal debate over the simulated drowning method known as waterboarding.
A May 10, 2005 memo -- one of several documents that seemed to strain to find a legal rationale for the method -- spelled out that a prisoner could be waterboarded at most six times during a two-hour session. It also required that a physician be on duty in case a prisoner didn’t recover after being returned to an upright position.
In that event, “the intervening physician would perform a tracheotomy,” the memo said.
The four documents cover a period of time from 2002 until 2005, when the government was recalculating its approach to detention and interrogation matters in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
The release of the documents was preceded by months of jostling among CIA and Justice Department officials over how much to disclose.
A department official who was not authorized to speak publicly said Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. urged full disclosure to help restore trust in the Justice Department, which had been beleaguered by criticism that it had twisted the law to fit the Bush administration’s political ends.
On Wednesday, the department issued a memo repudiating the opinions in the four Bush administration documents, saying they no longer represented the views of the Office of Legal Counsel.
Three of the four memos released Thursday were signed by Steven G. Bradbury, who served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel from 2005 until President Bush left office.
In a telephone interview, Bradbury -- who is now in private practice at a Washington firm -- said he and his small team of lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel did the best they could under trying circumstances, based on information provided by the CIA and other government sources.
“I feel that the opinions speak for themselves and would suggest that people carefully review them before criticizing them or jumping to conclusions,” Bradbury said. “I can’t go into deliberative detail beyond what’s in the documents.”
The release of the memos was driven to a large degree by a court-imposed deadline in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit aimed at forcing the government to disclose secret rulings issued in connection with the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs.
Obama’s decision to shield agency employees from legal liability drew criticism from human rights groups. Holder said the Justice Department would provide representation to CIA employees facing legal challenge in the U.S. or overseas.
Amnesty International, which also was involved in the legal effort to disclose the documents, described the administration’s position as a “get-out-of-jail-free card to individuals who, by U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder’s own estimation, were involved in acts of torture.”
The memos were designed to fill in details left out of more theoretical opinions -- some of which eventually surfaced publicly -- that were produced by the Justice Department as it sought to lay out the legal boundaries of Bush’s war on terrorism.
In many cases, the memos were drafted at the insistence of lawyers at the CIA, including Acting General Counsel John Rizzo, who grew increasingly anxious in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks that agency employees were being pressured to use methods that might later place them in legal jeopardy.
The memos make clear that many of the methods were imported from the military’s survival training programs, and frequently refer to physicians and psychologists who took part in evaluating CIA prisoners being subjected to coercive methods.
The ultimate goal, the memos said, was to make a detainee feel “he has no control over basic human needs.”
Detainees’ heads and beards were shaved and they were photographed naked. At first, interrogators would be cordial. But if a prisoner were uncooperative, interrogators would design a regimen that would grow in intensity.
Even the less violent techniques employed by the CIA can have a harrowing aspect, as described in the documents. A prisoner being subjected to sleep deprivation, for example, would have his feet shackled to the floor, his hands cuffed near his chin, and be forced to stand for the duration.
If the prisoner starts to fall asleep, “he will lose his balance and awaken, either because of the sensation of losing his balance or because of the restraining tension of the shackles,” the May 10, 2005 memo said. A prisoner undergoing such treatment was to be fed by hand and forced to wear a diaper. If he became cooperative, the agency could unshackle him “and let him feed himself.”
The memo outlined an escalating series of interrogation methods, sometimes used in concert, and was written months after the Justice Department had issued a December 2004 document that declared “torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms.”
Other methods outlined in the memos include dietary manipulation, in which prisoners were fed nothing but liquids; forced nudity, including in front of female CIA personnel; slaps to the face and abdomen; and a technique called “walling,” in which a detainee has a towel wrapped around his neck to guard against whiplash before being slammed against a “flexible, false wall.”