The US attorney-general has appointed a special prosecutor to
investigate allegations of abuse by the CIA during interrogations.
Eric Holder's appointment of John Durham, a federal prosecutor,
comes as a CIA report released on Monday revealed that US
interrogators threatened to kill a suspect's children and sexually
assault another suspect's mother.
The announcement of the investigation coincided with a White House
admission that Barack Obama's government would continue the previous
administration's practice of sending terrorism suspects to other
countries for detention and interrogation.
The White House also announced on Monday that it was setting up a
new interrogation unit to take over from the CIA any questioning of
Holder's decision to launch an investigation followed a
recommendation by the US justice department to consider re-opening
several cases of prisoner abuse alleged to have been carried out by
CIA employees or contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I fully realise that my decision to commence this preliminary
review will be controversial," Holder said in a statement.
"In this case, given all of the information currently available, it
is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of
action for me to take."
But Jayne Huckerby, research director at the Centre for Human Rights
and Global Justice at New York University, said that Holder had not
made the scope of the investigation wide enough.
"The attorney-general has indicated that it will be a preliminary
review into whether federal law was violated in respect of specific
interrogations of particular detainees overseas," she told Al
"On its very terms, [Holder] has limited the scope of the inquiry.
Added to the concerns of who will be testifying, what documents will
be accessed, it is very concerning that the inquiry will be limited.
"That is a particularly stark concern, given the other thing that
happened today - the release of the 2004 CIA inspector-general's
report into secret detention facilities and the interrogation
techniques that were used there."
The CIA report, written by the agency's inspector-general five years
ago but made public only on Monday, said interrogators used "unauthorised,
improvised, inhumane and undocumented" techniques, including
threatening detainees with guns and electric drills.
The so-called "enhanced" interrogation techniques that critics have
called torture, went beyond sleep deprivation, withholding food, and
waterboarding, where a suspect is made to feel like he is drowning.
Interrogators threatened to kill the children of Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks
on the US, and implied that another suspect's mother would be
Some officers also fired a gun in a room adjacent to where a
prisoner was being held to make him believe another suspect had been
executed, the report said.
Under US law it is illegal to threaten a detainee with imminent
Monday's developments could expose CIA employees and contractors to
prosecution for their treatment of suspects.
Obama has said that those who interrogated suspects based on legal
guidelines written by the administration of his predecessor George
Bush should not face legal action.
But Bill Burton, the deputy White House spokesman, acknowledged that
Holder has the final say.
"The president has said repeatedly, he thinks that we should be
looking forward, not backward," he said.
"But, ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is
prosecuted are up to the attorney-general."
Alexander Abdo, from the American Civil Liberties Union's national
security project which went to court to get the CIA report made
public, told Al Jazeera that his organisation hopes "that agents
hesitate in the future before they resort to techniques that amount
"We think that is a form of hesitation that is beneficial. It is
good for the reputation of the United States, it is good for our PR
in parts of the world that might want to do us harm and it is also
good in terms of the effectiveness of the interrogation technique.
"The [US] president made clear in May that he believes that the most
effective techniques are not the coercive techniques of the CIA but
the rapport-building techniques used by the FBI and other techniques
used in the army field manual," he said.
Renditions to continue
The apparent attempt to break with the policies of the Bush
administration, however, has not extended to the area of so-called
Obama administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity,
admitted on Monday that they would continue the practice of sending
terrorism suspects abroad to be detained and interrogated.
They said the state department would be given a larger role in
assuring that suspects sent overseas would not be tortured.
But human rights groups condemned the decision, saying diplomatic
assurances were no protection against abuse.
Also on Monday, Obama approved the formation of a White
House-supervised unit to interrogate terrorism suspects.
Burton said the president had set up the High Value Interrogation
Group, which will be housed at the FBI and answer to the National
It will adhere to interrogation guidelines based on the US army
field manual, which forbids techniques such as waterboarding, Burton
said, adding that the CIA will no longer handle the questioning of
people suspected of planning or carrying out attacks.
"The president's view is that intelligence gathering is best left to
the intelligence community," he said.