Skip to main content

Memo on harsh interrogations declassified

  • Story Highlights
  • Controversial guidance sent to Pentagon to interrogate prisoners in Afghanistan
  • Memo: U.S. laws, international treaties didn't apply to those interrogations
  • Bush administration contended detainees were "enemy combatants," not POWs
  • Justice Department declassifies now-defunct 2003 memo
  • Next Article in Politics »
From Terry Frieden
CNN Justice Producer
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department has declassified a 2003 legal memo that said U.S. criminal laws and international treaties did not apply in the military treatment and interrogations of "enemy combatants" taken from the battlefield and held outside the United States.

John Yoo's 2003 memo on interrogation techniques was rescinded nine months later by the Justice Department.

The now defunct legal guidance, written by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, went to the Pentagon to provide military interrogators with broad latitude for the use of harsh techniques in questioning prisoners in Afghanistan.

The administration adopted the term "enemy combatants" to refer to members of the Taliban and al Qaeda -- fighters they contended weren't prisoners of war when captured because they did not fight for a country.

"Federal criminal laws of general applicability do not apply to properly authorized interrogations of enemy combatants, undertaken by military personnel in the course of an armed conflict," Yoo wrote in the 81-page memo.

"Such criminal statutes ... would conflict with the Constitution's grant of the Commander in Chief power solely to the President."

The memo, which was declassified Tuesday, further asserted that the wartime circumstances also allowed the president to supercede international obligations.

"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," the memo said.

Jack Goldsmith, who became the assistant attorney general heading the Office of Legal Counsel, rescinded the memo nine months after it was issued, saying it went beyond the bounds of appropriate executive authority.

Another Justice Department memo, issued in 2002, defined torture as treatment that inflicted pain equivalent to a "serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death."

The department renounced that interpretation in 2004 when it became public during investigations into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

In 2005, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act, limiting the military's allowable interrogation techniques to those listed in the Army Field Manual.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been at the forefront of efforts to pry the interrogation memos from the Justice Department.

"Today's declassification of one such memo is a small step forward, but in no way fulfills those requests. The administration continues to shield several memos even from members of Congress," Leahy said in a statement.

"The memo they have declassified today reflects the expansive view of executive power that has been the hallmark of this administration. It is no wonder that this memo could not withstand scrutiny and had to be withdrawn."

The Bush administration repeatedly has insisted it does not torture suspected terrorists during interrogations.

But the president admitted in 2006 that top al Qaeda suspects had been held in secret prisons overseas and subjected to "alternative" interrogation methods, which he called tough but legal.

In July, Bush signed an executive order barring the CIA from using cruel, inhuman or humiliating treatment on prisoners under interrogation. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About TortureU.S. Department of JusticeAl QaedaGeorge W. Bush

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print