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Inquiry ordered into CIA methods

Prosecutor set to review abuses; Report details threats, brutality

By Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane
New York Times / August 25, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. named a veteran federal prosecutor yesterday to examine abuse of prisoners held by the Central Intelligence Agency, after the Justice Department released a long-secret report showing interrogators choked one prisoner repeatedly and threatened to kill another detainee’s children.

Holder chose John H. Durham, a prosecutor from Connecticut who has been investigating the CIA’s destruction of interrogation videotapes, to determine whether a full criminal investigation of the conduct of agency employees or contractors is warranted. The review will be the most politically explosive inquiry since Holder took over the Justice Department in February.

The decision was a significant blow to the CIA, and Holder said he would be criticized for undercutting the intelligence agency’s work. He said that he agreed with President Obama’s oft-expressed desire not to get mired in disputes over the policies of former president George W. Bush but added that his review of reports on the CIA interrogation program left him no choice.

“As attorney general, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law,’’ Holder said in a statement. “Given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.’’

At the same time, Obama ordered changes in future interrogations, bringing in other agencies besides the CIA under the direction of the FBI and supervised by his own national security adviser. The administration pledged that questioning would be controlled by the Army Field Manual, with strict rules on tactics, and said the White House would keep its hands off the professional investigators doing the work.

The attorney general said his decision to order an inquiry was based in part on the recommendation of the Justice Department’s ethics office, which called for a new review of several interrogation cases.

Holder said he was also influenced by a 2004 report by John L. Helgerson, then inspector general of the CIA, on the agency’s interrogations. The report was released yesterday under a court order in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Although large portions of the 109-page report are blacked out, it gives new details about a range of abuses inside the CIA’s overseas prisons, including suggesting sexually assaulting members of a detainees’ family, staging mock executions, intimidating with a handgun and power drill, and blowing cigar and cigarette smoke into prisoners’ faces to make them vomit.

The report found that the interrogations obtained critical information to identify terrorists and stop potential plots and said some imprisoned terrorists provided more information after being exposed to brutal treatment.

White House officials said they plan to continue the controversial practice of rendition of suspects to foreign countries, though they said that in future cases they would more carefully check to make sure such suspects are not tortured.

The inspector general’s review, however, raised broad questions about the legality, political acceptability, and effectiveness of the harshest of the CIA’s methods, including some not authorized by the Justice Department and others that were approved, like the near-drowning technique of waterboarding.

“This review identified concerns about the use of the waterboard, specifically whether the risks of its use were justified by the results, whether it has been unnecessarily used in some instances,’’ the report said, and whether the frequency and volume of water poured over the prisoner’s mouth and nose exceeded the Justice Department’s legal authorization.

In what appeared to be a response to the Justice Department’s release, the CIA yesterday released previously secret agency reports from 2004 and 2005 that detailed intelligence produced by the interrogation program.

One of the reports calls the program “a crucial pillar of US counterterrorism efforts’’ and describes how interrogations helped unravel a network headed by an Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali. The other report details information elicited from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, chief planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, saying it “dramatically expanded our universe of knowledge on Al Qaeda’s plots.’’

Those reports, which former Vice President Dick Cheney had sought to have released earlier this year, do not refer to any specific interrogation methods and do not assess their effectiveness.

The inspector general’s report, by contrast, offers details of abusive methods. During one session, a CIA interrogator threatened Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, charged with plotting the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, by saying that if he didn’t cooperate, “we could get your mother in here’’ and “we can bring your family in here.’’

According to the report, the interrogator wanted Nashiri to infer for “psychological’’ reasons that his female relatives might be sexually abused.

In another questioning, the report said, one CIA interrogator told investigators that Mohammed was told that if there was another attack on American soil, the CIA would “kill your children.’’ Mohammed’s sons were in the custody of Pakistani and American authorities at the time.

The CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, issued a statement to employees yesterday that carefully avoided defending the brutal treatment while expressing support for the agency’s efforts. Panetta wrote that the program had produced crucial intelligence but added that use of the harsh methods “will remain a legitimate area of dispute.’’

Members of Congress from the left and the right criticized Holder’s decision.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, criticized the potential focus on interrogators, suggesting that ignoring Justice Department lawyers and senior Bush administration officials in the investigation had echoes of the Abu Ghraib scandal, when “lower-ranking troops who committed abuses were hung out to dry.’’

But Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the Justice Department inquiry risked disrupting current counterterrorism operations. He said abuse charges have already been “exhaustively reviewed.’’

The choice of Durham is likely to speed the review’s progress, because his team of FBI agents and lawyers already was deeply immersed in the details of the CIA program. Since January 2008, they have been investigating CIA officials’ decision in 2005 to destroy videotapes documenting the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Nashiri.

Durham, a deputy US attorney in Connecticut, was appointed in 1999 as a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation of the FBI’s use of James “Whitey’’ Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi as informants. Durham helped secure the 2002 conviction of former FBI agent John Connolly on racketeering charges and also uncovered documents that helped persuade a judge to throw out the 1968 murder convictions of Joseph Salvati and Peter J. Limone. In 2007, those documents helped Salvati, Limone, and the families of two other men who had died in prison win a $101.7 million civil judgment against the government.