WASHINGTON — The Justice Department in 2002 told the CIA that its interrogators would be safe from prosecution for violations of anti-torture laws if they believed "in good faith" that harsh techniques used to break prisoners' will would not cause "prolonged mental harm."
That heavily censored memo -- obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, which released it Thursday -- approved the CIA's harsh interrogation techniques method by method, but warned that if the circumstances changed, interrogators could run afoul of anti-torture laws.
"Although an honest belief need not be reasonable, such a belief is easier to establish where there is a reasonable basis for it," said the memo, dated Aug. 1, 2002, and signed by then-Assistant Atty. Gen. Jay Bybee, the Washington Post reported.
The memo was issued the same day he wrote a memo for then-White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales defining torture as "extreme acts" causing pain akin to death or organ failure. The legal opinion defining torture was withdrawn more than two years later.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr told the Associated Press on Thursday that the interrogation techniques currently authorized by the Bush administration are legal. It's unclear which of those outlined in the newly released memo are still used. Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey has refused to address whether waterboarding, for example, is legal since the CIA no longer uses it.
Waterboarding is a form of simulated drowning. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden banned it in 2006, but government officials have said it remains a possibility if approved by the attorney general, the CIA chief and the president.
Secret Bush administration memos authorizing harsh interrogation techniques have been made public starting in 2004, when the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal revealed detainee mistreatment. Thursday's release adds to the growing record of the still-secret program launched after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The ACLU also obtained two other documents dealing with the CIA's interrogation program. The Bybee memo specifically approved interrogation techniques that were devised for Al Qaeda suspects who were resistant to traditional questioning.
The standards used to judge how physically rough an interrogation could be are blacked out. But interrogations that stress a detainee psychologically or emotionally were not allowed to cause "prolonged mental harm" -- defined as lasting months or even years. The memo suggests that psychiatrists or psychologists should be consulted prior to interrogations to assess the likely effect on the prisoner.
The new documents indicate that senior Bush administration officials were aware of the controversial and potentially problematic use of certain interrogation methods.