WASHINGTON - CIA and military interrogators bucked repeated warnings from the FBI that methods used to question terror suspects were in some cases "borderline torture" and potentially illegal, the Justice Department's internal watchdog reported yesterday.
Prosecutors stopped far short of pursuing charges against interrogators, however, after concluding that the Pentagon was ultimately responsible for policing the treatment of Al Qaeda detainees who were being held in military prisons.
More than three years in the making, the audit issued by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine generally praises how the FBI handled terror interrogations following the Sept. 11 terror attacks through 2004.
Fine's report raises troubling questions about CIA and Pentagon interrogators whose use of snarling dogs, short shackles, mocking of the Koran, and other abuses of detainees overseas appear to have overstepped what US courts would allow in collecting evidence.
In the 2002 interrogation of Al Qaeda commander Abu Zubaydah, for example, an FBI agent at the scene "raised objections to these techniques to the CIA and told the CIA it was borderline torture," Fine's report said.
At the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, FBI agents in 2002 openly clashed with military interrogators bent on aggressively interrogating Al Qaeda operative Muhammad al-Qahtani by confronting him with agitated dogs and keeping him awake for continuous 20-hour interviews daily.
"The plan was to keep him up until he broke," the FBI agent told superiors, the Justice Department report said.
"We found no evidence that the FBI's concerns influenced DOD interrogation policies," the report concluded.
For at least part of the time covered by Fine's investigation, the CIA and Pentagon were working under Justice Department guidance that their interrogation methods were legal.
However, FBI agents recognized as early as 2002 that they would not be allowed to use those methods to interview prisoners in the United States.
FBI agents are explicitly banned from using brutality, physical violence, intimidation, or other means of causing duress when interviewing suspects. Instead, the FBI generally tries to build a rapport with suspects to get information.
"Beyond any doubt, what they are doing (and I don't know the extent of it) would be unlawful were these enemy prisoners of war," one agent wrote back to FBI headquarters in a document cited in the Justice report.
Fine's investigators found no evidence that FBI agents witnessed or were otherwise personally aware of cases where terror suspects were subjected to waterboarding, a particularly harsh interrogation tactic that critics call a form of torture. The CIA has acknowledged waterboarding Zubaydah, in part out of concern that he had information that could prevent another imminent attack.
Such tactics "have been employed only when traditional means of questioning - things like rapport-building - were ineffective," CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said yesterday.
In Qahtani's case, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said no evidence of torture has ever surfaced after extensive internal reviews. Qahtani, designated as an additional hijacker for the 2001 attacks, was forced to wear a bra, dance with another man, and behave like a dog while at Guantanamo Bay, according to a 2005 Pentagon report.
Whitman also said he was unaware of any Pentagon actions that would have delayed the Justice report. Fine's audit, however, describes seven months of foot-dragging and negotiating by the Pentagon over how much information in the report should be classified or otherwise shielded from public review.
The 438-page report issued yesterday is only sparsely blacked-out.
The audit surveyed over 1,000 agents, interviewed hundreds of other witnesses, and reviewed more than a half-million documents. It concluded FBI agents in nearly all cases refused to participate in harsh interrogations and left the room when they were ongoing.
Agents also were fairly vigilant about reporting their concerns to their superiors, the report shows.