Barack Obama yesterday confirmed he will shield from prosecution CIA operatives who inflicted waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques against terror suspects during the Bush years, even as the White House released memos containing shocking new details of what was permitted in their secret prisons.
Four of the memos that were written by the Justice Department officials in the wake of the 11 September attacks offering legal justification for the use of special techniques on prisoners were made public in their entirety without any passages blacked out, as some observers had expected.
The now-discredited practices detailed in the documents ranged from waterboarding to collaring prisoners before slamming them naked against a wall. Suspects were forced to stand naked for prolonged periods and were slapped and deprived of sleep. One passage refers to the placement of insects into a suspect's "confinement box".
In a statement issued after his arrival in Mexico yesterday on a 24-hour visit, Mr Obama acknowledged what he called "a dark and painful chapter in our history". He then went on: "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."
Human rights groups and Democratic activists will be disappointed, though not surprised, by Mr Obama's continuing unwillingness to pursue those who carried out what they consider to have been war crimes. The memos were only released because of a lawsuit against the administration by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Mr Obama has decisively distanced himself from his predecessor, vowing upon taking office that all torture would be discontinued immediately, arguing that it was antithetical to America's values. He said that the perception that America would torture to protect its safety did not in fact make it safer, but the opposite. The President has also vowed to close all US facilities at Guantanamo Bay.He echoed the same sentiments last night. "Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure," Mr Obama said in his statement.
Last week, the new CIA director, Leon Panetta, also took the symbolic step of formally decommissioning the secret prisons that were set up in at least eight countries around the world where some of the worst interrogations of the terror suspects took place.
One of the memos being seen for the first time approved waterboarding. It was written in 2002 by the former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee for the CIA's top lawyer, John Rizzo. It was written specifically to broaden the techniques available to operatives interrogating an al-Qa'ida suspect, Abu Zubaydah.
"We find that the use of the waterboarding constitutes a threat of imminent death" - one of the criteria for torture - the memo says. "It creates in the subject the uncontrollable physiological sensation that the subject is drowning." It also says that, "in the absence of prolonged mental harm, no severe mental pain or suffering would have been inflicted, and the use of these procedures would not constitute torture within the meaning of the statute".
Separately, last night, the US Attorney General Eric Holder reaffirmed that those CIA employees involved in past torture must be protected from prosecution. Indeed, the US government, he said, would provide them with lawyers in the event others tried to bring cases against them and pay for any monetary penalties they might incur.
"It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department," Mr Holder said. He was partly intending to send a message to Spain, where a judge recently signalled his intention to bring charges against US interrogators.
The action by the ACLU against the Obama administration had already forced it to release nine other memos earlier this month. Most experts expect that more such documents will be released in the coming weeks. Details of the harsh treatment of the detainees were also contained in a recent International Red Cross report written on the basis of interviews conducted with six prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.