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Debate rages over secret Justice memo on torture

  • Story Highlights
  • New York Times reports classified 2005 memo loosened rules on torture
  • White House, Justice Department strongly deny The Times story
  • White House confirms there was a memo, but says it did not change U.S. policy
  • Policy outlined in 2004 public memo says U.S. does not torture
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From Terry Frieden
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House and Justice Department on Thursday strongly denied a published report that a secret Justice Department opinion in 2005 allowed the torture of terror detainees, months after the government publicly renounced it.

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A secret memo issued by the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales came under fire Thursday.

White House press secretary Dana Perino confirmed the existence of a previously undisclosed February 5, 2005, memo by the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel which addressed "specific applications" of the earlier memo.

But Perino insisted the classified document did not undercut or reverse the public December 2004 memo, which rejected the use of torture in prisoner interrogations as "abhorrent."

"U.S. policy is not to torture -- and we do not," Perino told reporters.

"Regardless of where we are, we do not torture anybody, but getting information from them is critically important to protecting this country," she said.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse issued a statement declaring the December 2004 anti-torture memo remains binding on the executive branch.

"Neither Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales nor anyone else within the Department modified or withdrew that opinion," Roehrkasse said.

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"Any advice that the department would have provided in this area would rely upon and be fully consistent with the legal standards articulated in the December 2004 memorandum," he said.

CIA spokesman George Little issued a statement saying all interrogations are conducted "in strict accord with U.S. law."

"The agency's terrorist detention and interrogation program has been conducted lawfully, with great care and close review, including extensive discussion within the executive branch and oversight from Congress," Little said.

"The CIA does not -- despite all the myth and misinformation out there -- comment on specific interrogation methods. Those serious misimpressions are the costs we pay to deny al Qaeda knowledge of the tactics used so effectively against its operatives," Little said.

The flurry of government statements followed the publication Thursday of a New York Times article which said the 2005 memo amounted to "an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency."

The Times said the memo was strongly opposed by then-departing Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who had repeatedly clashed with the Bush White House over terror-related policies.

The Times said its investigation over three months had included interviews with more than two dozen current and former officials.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers seized upon the report to sharply criticize the Bush administration.

"It appears that under Attorney General Gonzales they reversed themselves and reinstated a secret regime by, in essence, reinterpreting the law in secret," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

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"I suspect that former Deputy Attorney General Comey will again prove to be right in his prediction that the Department of Justice will be ashamed when we learn more about all that they have done," Leahy said.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned that the "ongoing scandals" at the Justice Department "now encumber" the nomination of retired federal judge Michael Mukasey, selected to replace Gonzales as attorney general. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About The White HousePatrick LeahyAlberto Gonzales

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