A declassified 2003 memo has been released by the US justice department. It approves the use of harsh interrogation methods on al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects held abroad.
Subsequently overruled, the memo said that as president, George W. Bush’s authority superseded international ban on torture.
“Our previous opinions make clear that customary international law is not federal law and that the president is free to override it at his discretion”, said the memo, written by John Yoo, who was then deputy assistant attorney general for the US Office of Legal Counsel.
The memo also gave a justification for any interrogator who could be charged with breaking US or international laws : “Finally, even if the criminal prohibitions outlined above applied, and an interrogation method might violate those prohibitions, necessity or self-defence could provide justifications for any criminal liability.”
Mr Yoo’s memo also included past legal defences of other interrogation methods, not considered torture : sleep deprivation, hooding detainees and “frog crouching”, which forces the prisoners to crouch while standing on the tips of their toes.
The memo said that the “definition of torture must be read as a sum of these component parts”.
In december 2003, nine months after Mr Yoo sent the memo to the Pentagon’s top lawyer, William J. Haynes, it was rescinded.
Green light to torture prisoners
A Pentagon spokesman, Commander JD Gordon, said “our policy is to treat detainees humanely and that has always been the case.” And the Pentagon marked its difference from US intelligence bodies, as it has specifically prohibited its interrogators from using certain harsh methods, such as the one called waterboarding.
It’s a legal action, launched by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), concerning the treatment of prisoners in US custody abroad, that provoked, as a response, the release of the document.
The year 2003 marked a period where the US have faced widespread criticism over a series of prisoner abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib prison (photo), and at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
Amrit Singh, a ACLU lawyer, said that “Senior officials at the justice department gave the Pentagon the green light to torture prisoners.” According to her, the 2003 memo, and a similar 2002 opinion for the CIA, proves that the Bush administration was wrong when they pretended that abuses like those taking place in Abu Ghraib.
“These memos just go to show that it was the policies of the Bush administration that was driving this abuse”, she added.
The memo has also been condemned by Democratic party politicians. Joseph Biden, a Democratic senator, said that “This memo created the lawless atmosphere that led directly to the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib. Those who wrote it and those who approved it should be held accountable.”