Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify—and publicly release—three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees. The memos, written by Justice Department lawyers in May 2005, provide the legal rationale for waterboarding, head slapping and other rough tactics used by the CIA. One senior Obama official, who like others interviewed for this story requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said the memos were "ugly" and could embarrass the CIA. Other officials predicted they would fuel demands for a "truth commission" on torture.
Because of an executive order signed by President Obama on Jan. 22 banning such aggressive tactics, deputies to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. concluded there was no longer any reason to keep the interrogation memos classified. But current and former intel officials pushed back, arguing that any public release might still compromise "sources and methods." According to the administration official, ex-CIA director Michael Hayden was "furious" about the prospect of disclosure and tried to intervene directly with Obama officials. But the White House has sided with Holder. Faced with a court deadline in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit regarding the memos filed by the ACLU, Justice lawyers asked for a two-week extension "because the memoranda are being reviewed for possible release." (White House, Justice and CIA spokesmen all declined to comment.)
The debate about torture ramped up again last week with an account in the New York Review of Books about a secret International Red Cross report that was delivered to the CIA in February 2007. The report, according to journalist Mark Danner, quotes detainees describing, often in gruesome detail, how they were locked in coffin-size boxes; swung by towels around their necks into plywood walls; and forced to stand naked for days while their arms were shackled above their heads.
"I now know we were not fully and completely briefed on the CIA program," Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein told NEWSWEEK. A U.S. official disputed the charge, claiming that members of Congress received more than 30 briefings over the life of the CIA program and that Congressional intel panels had seen the Red Cross report. But the CIA insisted that the report be treated as if it had higher than top-secret classification, precluding any public discussion of its contents. That's why declassification of the memos is significant, administration officials say: it would remove, at long last, the veil of secrecy about how detainees in the war on terror were actually treated.