WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has published a revised and expansive definition of acts that constitute torture under domestic and international law, overtly repudiating one of the most criticized policy memorandums drafted during President Bush's first term.
In a statement published on the department's website late Thursday, the head of its Office of Legal Counsel declares that ''torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and international norms."
The statement goes on to reject a previous statement that only ''organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" constitute torture punishable by law.
That earlier definition of torture figured prominently in complaints by Democrats and human rights groups about White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who oversaw its creation and is Bush's nominee to become attorney general for the second term. The new memo's public release came a week before the start of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Gonzales's nomination.
The new document also omits two assertions made in an earlier version: that Bush, as a wartime chief executive, had the authority to permit acts barred by US laws against torture, and that US personnel following executive orders involving torture had legal defenses against criminal liability. The new memo states that torture violates US and international law.
The administration's legal document defining torture was first written in 2002, before the Iraqi prison abuse scandal became public.
The White House insisted yesterday that the United States has operated under the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit violence, torture, and humiliating treatment, the Associated Press reported. It said the new document did not represent a change in administration policy.
''It has been US policy from the start to treat detainees humanely and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions or under the spirit of the Conventions where they do not apply," said White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy.
In the new memo, Acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin said torture may consist of acts that fall short of provoking excruciating and agonizing pain and thus may include mere physical suffering or lasting mental anguish. His opinion is meant, according to its language, to undermine any notion that those who conduct harmful interrogations may be exempt from prosecution.
This second effort by the Bush administration to parse the legal meaning of the word ''torture" was provoked by the damaging political fallout from the disclosure this summer of the first memo, drafted in August 2002 and criticized by human rights lawyers and experts around the world.
Many of the critics charged that the first memo -- which they said laid out a very narrow view of what behavior might constitute torture and was crafted to help interrogators at the CIA evade prosecution -- created the context for a record of persistent ill treatment by that agency and the US military of detainees at prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, and undisclosed locations.
''Clearly the release of this now is backfilling for Gonzales's confirmation hearing," said I. Michael Greenberger, a senior Justice Department official in the Clinton administration who now heads the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. ''These memos have been a tremendous source of embarrassment to both Gonzales and the administration."
Greenberger said that recent accounts of widespread abuse at US detention facilities -- including disclosures that military interrogation practices were sharply criticized over the past two years by FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency personnel in the field -- have given ammunition to those within the administration who favor adherence to international norms against torture.
''It could be that this is not just a cynical ploy but a real sign of change," Greenberger said.
One of the most controversial provisions of the earlier memorandum, signed by Levin's predecessor, Jay S. Bybee, was an assertion that the president's executive powers were sufficient to permit tolerance of torturous acts in extraordinary circumstances. The International Committee of the Red Cross had declared in response that the prohibition on torture, embodied in a global convention signed by the United States, has no exceptions.
But advocates of strict adherence to the convention previously lost interagency battles to hard-liners in the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and the White House, who asserted the president has expansive powers during the war on terrorism. The new memo pointedly sidesteps this issue, stating that the ''consideration of the bounds of any such authority would be inconsistent with the president's unequivocal directive that United States personnel not engage in torture."
The memo also drops an attempt in the earlier version to rule that harmful acts not specifically intended to cause severe pain and suffering might be legal, and to define ''specific intent."