The Obama administration says CIA officials who used waterboarding, or simulated drowning, and other harsh interrogation techniques on terrorist suspects will not face prosecution, as long as their actions were in line with the legal advice issued by the Justice Department at the time. The assurance came as the administration released four Bush-era legal opinions authorizing controversial interrogation methods.
President Barack Obama says Thursday's release of four legal opinions governing harsh questioning of terrorism suspects is required by the rule of law.
The release of the memos comes in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, and it has been the topic of fierce debate.
In a statement issued by the White House on Thursday, Mr. Obama made clear that since taking office, he has prohibited the use of harsh interrogation techniques, arguing that these methods undermine U.S. moral authority and do not make the country safer.
The four memos were written between 2002 and 2005 by Bush administration lawyers, who approved tough interrogation methods used against 28 terrorist suspects - ranging from waterboarding to keeping suspects naked and slamming them against walls.
Michael Hayden, who was the Central Intelligence Agency Director under President George Bush, said the memos should not have been released to the public because of national security concerns. He said the release will let terrorists know what to expect in a CIA interrogation, if such techniques are approved for use again.
In a statement also released on Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder offered the first assurances to CIA officials. He said intelligence officials who relied on the Justice Department's legal advice in good faith will not face federal prosecution and will be provided legal representation for any court proceeding based on their conduct.
Holder said it would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect the United States for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department.
The ACLU had brought a lawsuit against the government, saying the memos must be released in their entirety and that government officials should be held accountable for what the group describes as torture of terrorism suspects.
A U.S. court gave the Justice Department until Thursday to release the memos or explain why it could not.
ACLU spokesman Alex Abdo praised the Obama administration for releasing the memos, but said transparency is not enough.
"There are specific measures that need to be taken to allow accountability to prevent these types of human rights abuses from ocurring in the future," he said. "And those would be the appointment of a select committee with subpoena power to investigate by Congress, and the appointment of an independent prosecutor by the Justice Department to examine questions of criminal responsibility."
In his statement on Thursday, President Obama did not mention possible investigations of those who authorized the interrogation policies. He said the United States has been through what he termed "a dark and painful chapter" and that nothing would be gained by spending time and energy laying blame for the past.