US appoints prosecutor to investigate detainee abuses

August 25th, 2009 - 6:33 am ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama Washington, Aug 25 (DPA) US Attorney General Eric Holder Monday appointed a special prosecutor to re-examine nearly a dozen cases of CIA interrogators who allegedly abused terrorism detainees in the aftermath of the Sep 11, 2001, attacks.
It was one of a flurry of decisions and reports issued throughout Monday relating to former President George W. Bush’s once-secret interrogation programmes that were launched in 2002.

President Barack Obama authorised the formation of an elite interrogation team to handle top terrorism suspects, shifting that responsibility from the CIA to the FBI and bringing it under the direct oversight of the White House.

The Justice Department released a much-anticipated 2004 report by the inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The 154-page report offers a history of the CIA detention programme and documents a series of prisoner abuses by interrogators.

Holder said his decision to launch a new investigation was largely based on the 2004 report. John Durham, a career prosecutor, is tasked with investigating whether CIA personnel and private contractors broke the law as they dealt with terrorism suspects held overseas.

The decisions mark a repudiation of the Bush administration, which sanctioned “enhanced” interrogation techniques that critics have called torture. Obama ended the practice within days of entering office in January.

Bush administration officials long defended the methods as critical to preventing more terrorist attacks against the US.

The CIA report says interrogations “enabled the identification and apprehension of other terrorists and warned of terrorist plots planned for the US and around the world”. But critics argue there is no way of knowing how much of that information could have been garnered without the harsh techniques.

The CIA report documented cases where interrogators went well beyond even the expanded methods. Interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan carried out mock executions, threatened one detainee with a gun and electric drill and threatened the families of other detainees.

“We’re going to kill your children,” an interrogator told Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the Sep 11 attacks on New York and Washington, according to the report.

Obama has said he prefers to move forward with his own agenda rather than prosecute abuses of the past, but the White House said it would be up to Holder whether to actually launch criminal cases.

The Justice Department’s ethics office recommended that some cases of prisoner abuse be reopened. Holder stressed he was launching a preliminary inquiry, but the decision still seemed to put him at odds with the White House.

“I fully realise that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial,” 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.”

The repeated allegations have reportedly severely harmed morale at the CIA. Its current director, Leon Panetta, suggested he was opposed to reopening cases that had been closed by the Justice Department years earlier.

“My primary interest … is to stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given,” Panetta wrote in the letter, which was posted on the news website Politico.

The new inquiry was welcomed by human-rights groups, but many said it should be expanded to include Bush administration officials. Legal memos that supported practices including water-boarding, a technique that simulates drowning, were released earlier this year.

The CIA inspector general’s report provides compelling official confirmation that the CIA committed serious crimes, said Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch. A full criminal investigation into these crimes, and who authorised them, is absolutely necessary.

The White House earlier Monday said it created a new interrogation team that will be based at the FBI, the chief domestic law-enforcement agency. It will be overseen by the National Security Council, which reports directly to the president.

The change moves responsibility for interrogating high-value suspects away from the CIA. It was recommended by a Justice Department taskforce whose findings were released Monday.

The White House has said that any final decision on whether to prosecute CIA officers for prisoner abuse will be left to Holder.

“The president has said repeatedly that he wants to look forward, not back,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement. “Ultimately, determinations about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the attorney general.”

Monday’s decisions are part of an ongoing review of policies to handle terrorist suspects captured both on military battlefields, such as Afghanistan, and around the world.

Obama has already directed the closure of the controversial detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the end of the year.

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