US denies breaking torture laws after memos exposed

Kim Landers

In the United States, the Bush Administration is again under fire for secretly authorising torture tactics during the interrogation of terrorism suspects.

Although the White House is insisting that the US does not injure prisoners, two separate, secret memos endorsing the harsh techniques have previously been exposed.

And there are also reports that secret CIA prisons holding terrorism suspects are still being run around the world.

Democrats are demanding that the Justice Department turn over the two secret memos, which explicitly authorise painful physical and psychological tactics – things like head-slapping, simulated drowning and freezing temperatures.

The New York Times disclosed the existence of the 2005 memos, which were apparently written months after the Justice Department withdrew an earlier legal opinion approving harsh methods.

Anonymous officials say the opinions remain in effect, yet Congress has prohibited cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of terrorism suspects.

But the White House is insisting that the Bush Administration has not violated America’s anti-torture laws.

Fran Townsend is President’s George W Bush’s homeland security adviser.

“The United States does not torture. Do we have a program? Yes we do. People who participate in that program are carefully trained with more than 250 hours of training,” she said.

“The average age of an interrogator is 43. They’re not just interrogators who are part of the team, there are also subject matter experts and individuals who are there to monitor the health and psychological wellbeing of the detainee himself.”

Ms Townsend will not confirm whether the specific interrogation techniques being reported by The New York Times are being or have ever been used.

She says detainees are only subjected to a harsh interrogation if they can provide timely information about the location of Al Qaeda leaders, or about an imminent threat to the US.

“There have been fewer than 100 CIA detainees in any type of program,” she said.

“Less than a third of those have ever had techniques used against them; I will say to you though, that [group of] less than a third produced 8,500 intelligence reports on threat information.”

‘Shameful’ secret

The New York Times reports that the secret interrogation memos were approved by then attorney-general Alberto Gonzales – over the objections of his deputy James Comey, who reportedly told colleagues that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it.

Human Rights Watch spokesman Tom Malinowski says the memos are significant.

“What these opinions show is that the Justice Department was still trying to authorise the use of torture, even when Republicans and Democrats in Congress led by Senator McCain were trying to outlaw it once and for all,” he said.

Democrats are promising a congressional inquiry into the two Justice Department legal opinions. They say that the alleged content and the fact that they have been kept secret from Congress are extremely troubling.

And while the White House skirts around whether the CIA has resumed using secret prisons to detain and interrogate suspects, an anonymous US counter-terrorism official has confirmed that the program is still active.

Asked if the CIA is currently holding anyone, an agency spokesman said, “We do not comment on this question as a matter of course”.