The US Attorney General, Eric Holder, yesterday threw fresh sand into the young presidency of Barack Obama by appointing a special prosecutor to look into the illegal abuse of terror suspects by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency and its contractors while under the watch of George Bush and Dick Cheney.
Mr Obama, on the first full day of his Martha’s Vineyard holiday, has signaled in the past that he would rather not rake over old mistakes when it comes to the CIA and the handling of terror suspects, in part out of the concern that it would detract energy and attention from his domestic agenda moving forward. That is now certain to happen.
But the Attorney General was not apologetic last night. “I fully realise that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial,” Mr Holder said in a statement.
“In this case, given all of the information currently available, it is clear to methat this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.”
Earlier yesterday officials revealed that Mr Obama has ordered the creation of a terror-related interrogations unit to take charge of the questioning of so-called “high value” detainees in the future. Under direct White House supervision, it will also research new ways of prying information from prisoners without erring into torture.
That move was certain to be seen as a deliberate break from the policies of Mr Obama’s predecessor, George Bush, aswell another rebuff to the battered CIA. Privately, the CIA may be glad to be rid of an area of operations – carried out in a murky network of overseas prisons or “black sites” – that has bought it so much trouble.
Officials said the new High Value Detainee Interrogation Group would be based at the FBI and will adhere at first to the 19 questioning guidelines laid out in the army field manual. The manual was meant to set outer limits on the treatment of prisoners but it was partially ignored in the post-9/11 fervour of the Bush administration.
Mr Holder, who was also preparing last night to release a declassified version of 2004 internal CIA report into cases of probably prisoner, named John Durham, a longtime federal prosecutor in Connecticut, to lead the probe. He will investigate at least a dozen cases involving prisoners who were interrogated by the CIA. Most of those cases are detailed in the 2004 report that was authored by the then Inspector General of the CIA.
Mr Durham is already working on a case involving videotapes of interrogation by the CIA that were destroyed. He is likely to begin his work soon after the summer recess, a time when Mr Obama was hoping to focus all of Washington on passing his health care reform bill.
“As the President has said repeatedly, he [Mr Obama] thinks that we should be looking forward, not backward,” Bill Burton, the deputy White House press secretary, told reporters on Martha’s Vineyard. “He does agree with the Attorney General that anyone who conducted actions that had been sanctioned should not be prosecuted.”
The CIA report was to offer more information on how the field manual guidelines on the treatment of prisoners became smudged under Mr Bush’s watch. In one instance, interrogators told the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that his children would be killed if any further attacks on the United States occurred.
One CIA interrogator was recalled from abroad for taking a gun into an interrogation session.
The CIA employee was reassigned and the case was passed to the Justice Department, which at the time decided against prosecution.
A CIA spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, said that the fact that such cases had been referred to the Justice Department “speaks to the strength of the safeguards that existed”. All the interrogators used at overseas prisons “were carefully chosen and trained.
Examples of inappropriate behaviour in the high-value detainee program were, to my knowledge, rather rare”.Reuse content