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The Obama Administration will launch criminal investigations into brutal Bush-era terror interrogations after a report tonight revealed that operatives threatened to kill the children of a key September 11 suspect, and told another his mother would be sexually assaulted in front of him.
The report, which also said detainees suffered mock executions and death threats, convinced Eric Holder, President Obama’s Attorney-General, to appoint veteran federal prosecutor John Durham to investigate CIA abuse of terror suspects.
The 2004 report, which has been suppressed for five years but was released after a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lays out in grim detail the abuse of terror suspects between 2002 and 2004 at secret CIA “black site” prisons.
Its contents, and the decision by Mr Holder to explore prosecutions, will reignite the partisan debate on Capitol Hill over the issue of torture. Mr Obama has repeatedly said that he wants to look forward, rather than get bogged down in investigations of Bush-era abuses – a sentiment repeated by his spokesman yesterday.
The controversial move by Mr Holder will prove a major distraction for Mr Obama as he continues his troubled push to reform the US healthcare system, in addition to setting up a politically uncomfortable clash with his own Attorney-General.
According to the report, written five years ago by the CIA’s former inspector general John Helgerson, one CIA interrogator told Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11 attacks: “We’re going to kill your children” if there was another terror strike on US soil.
Another interrogator allegedly tried to convince another detainee that his mother would be brought to the jail and sexually assaulted in front of him, a claim the CIA operative has denied.
Mr Holder’s decision was bolstered by a recommendation from his Justice Department’s ethics office to reopen nearly a dozen alleged abuse cases. “I fully realise my decision … will be controversial,” Mr Holder said tonight.
As Mr Holder reopens investigations into the actions of CIA interrogators, human rights groups and many Democrats are urging him also to focus on the Bush-era officials who they claim authorised the abusive methods.
They are particularly focused on the Bush-era Justice Department lawyers who wrote legal guidelines for the CIA in 2002 redefining torture in such a way as to allow techniques such as waterboarding – which simulates drowning – and severe physical abuse.
“The important thing now is that any action doesn’t focus solely on the people who carried out the torture, but on the people who gave the orders and who wrote the legal memos which facilitated torture,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU.“This was not the result of rogue interrogators but a programme thought through at the highest levels of the Bush Administration. The report provides further evidence that torture was authorized by legal memos of the Justice Department and authorised by senior Bush administration officials.”
US statutes on tortureforbid threatening a detainee with death. The report said that at least one detainee was threatened with a gun and a power drill. Another was forced to listen to a gunshot in a nearby room, with the aim of making him think that a fellow detainee had just been executed.
The Justice Department also announced yesterday that Mr Obama has approved the creation of a special team of interrogators to question high-level terror suspects, a move aimed at ending the chances of further abuse.
The new team, known as the High-Value Detention Interrogation Group, will be based at the FBI but will be overseen by the National Security Council – taking oversight of interrogations away from the CIA and giving it instead to the Obama White House.