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Terror memos authorized harsh interrogation techniques

Obama releases four secret memos detailing detainee treatment under Bush. Human rights groups slam his promise not to prosecute intelligence officials.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2009

The Obama administration will not prosecute US intelligence officials involved in harsh interrogations of terror suspects, the president pledged on Thursday.

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The assurance came as the Justice Department released four secret memos used during the Bush presidency offering legal justification for interrogation techniques that human rights experts classify as torture, such as waterboarding.

The action comes after weeks of heated debate within the administration over whether to release the memos. Some officials were concerned that public disclosure might help Al Qaeda and build momentum for investigation of alleged acts of torture by US intelligence officials.

Many human rights activists have urged the president to authorize an investigation of torture allegations during President Bush's war on terror, with some calling for the appointment of an independent prosecutor.

But the president and Attorney General Eric Holder have decided against that. "This is a time for reflection, not retribution," President Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

Human rights activists blasted the decision.

Within days of taking office, Mr. Obama ended the use of harsh interrogation techniques described in the memos.

One memo, dated August 2002, authorized 10 special interrogation techniques for use against Al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, including waterboarding. Under this interrogation technique, the suspect is placed on a board or table with his feet above his head, a cloth is draped over the nose and mouth, and water is poured over his face.

The technique, widely considered a form of torture by human-rights experts, triggers an intense, uncontrollable sensation of drowning.

In the memo, then Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee acknowledged that waterboarding came close to violating the US torture statute because it constitutes "a threat of imminent death." But he added that it would not amount to torture unless the experience resulted in "prolonged mental harm" lasting months or years.

"In the absence of prolonged mental harm, no severe mental pain or suffering would have been inflicted, and the use of these procedures would not constitute torture within the meaning of the statute," Mr. Bybee wrote.

Questions had been raised about Mr. Abu Zubaydah's mental health, based in part on his actions in court proceedings at Guantanamo.