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More Bush-Era Torture Memos Released


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This afternoon the Obama administration released four legal documents that provide a window into the CIA's controversial interrogation program. The memos describe in detail, which techniques interrogators were allowed to use against high-level terrorism detainees during the Bush administration. At the same time, Attorney General Eric Holder told CIA officials that he would not prosecute interrogators who relied on those memos. NPR's Ari Shapiro joins me in the studio and Ari, what are these memos and why did they come out today?

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, it's about 100 pages total, four memos from 2002 and 2005. And it was basically the culmination of a five-year court battle that the ACLU had been fighting with the administration and it looked like the judge was probably going to order the memos to be released, so the Obama administration went ahead and declassified them, and one thing that's striking is that there're very few redactions. You can kind of read through these memos more or less beginning to end.

SIEGEL: So what's the new information?

SHAPIRO: It's a very detailed breakdown of exactly what CIA interrogators can do, when, and how they can do it. Here's a list of some of the interrogation tactics that are approved. There's slapping, sleep deprivation, stress positions, slamming a detainee into a flexible wall, confinement in a small space. And the detail is amazing, about for example, if they're imposing dietary restrictions. These memos say you must give the person this many calories per day, this much water per day or if they're dousing the detainee in cold water the memo says if the water is this temperature you have to give the person this many minutes to recover, for example.

In one instance - this is very notable - they said that they could put a detainee who had a profound fear of bugs in a small box with an insect and tell him that it was a poisonous stinging insect. In fact, it was a caterpillar of some sort.

SIEGEL: Now the technique that generated the most controversy and the most discussion over the past couple of years was water boarding.


SIEGEL: What do we learn about water boarding?

SHAPIRO: Water boarding of course is controlled drowning. And these memos describe it as the most intense of the CIA interrogation techniques, sort of in a category of its own. One memo says we find that the use of the water board constitutes a threat of imminent death. But this memo concluded that it's not torture because it does not cause severe physical or mental pain or suffering. The Obama administration of course...

SIEGEL: Not even mental suffering?

SHAPIRO: Not even - not prolonged mental suffering. Not severe mental suffering which was the sticking point in this memo. The Obama administration has said that water boarding is torture. But today several administration officials said that people who relied on these legal memos won't be prosecuted for relying on them in good faith.

SIEGEL: Yeah tell us more about that message - the message that the White House has sent to the CIA today.

SHAPIRO: Well, it was almost a full court press. There were messages from CIA director Leon Panetta, President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and basically the thrust was as you CIA officials defend the nation, I will defend you. President Obama called the period when these memos were written - a dark and painful chapter in our history. But he said at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.

Attorney General Holder said it would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department. The back story here is that CIA officials, former CIA directors, had fought pretty hard behind the scenes to prevent the release of these memos. This was a way of sort of calming the concerns that they were being made public.

SIEGEL: The former director Michael Hayden also said this was wrong to have done this and informs people of all the interrogation techniques that they might face indeed if they come in the CIA hands.

SHAPIRO: Exactly.

SIEGEL: The end of the story?

SHAPIRO: No. The ACLU which fought for the release of these memos is now going to fight for the release of related documents that were kept classified while these memos are being kept classified. And of course there's an investigation into the Justice Department lawyers who wrote these memos.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: It's NPR's Ari Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.