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Memos Shed Light on CIA Interrogation Practices

Newly-released U.S. government memos spell out in extraordinary detail some of the now-outlawed techniques CIA interrogators used on detainees. The memos of the Bush administration Justice Department were intended to provide legal justification for tougher questioning of suspected terrorists in the days immediately following September 11, 2001.

In four memos dating to 2002 and 2005, attorneys of the Bush administration Justice Department spelled out how far CIA officers could go in handling suspected terrorists.

In language both lawyerly and graphic, the attorneys gave legal justification to slap, strip, and shackle detainees. The interrogators were told they could put them in painful standing positions, deprive them of solid food, keep them awake for extended periods of time, lock them in cold rooms, and submit them to the technique of simulated drowning known as waterboarding. Clearance was even given to put harmless caterpillars in the cell of one detainee who was known to have an intense fear of bugs.

Former CIA inspector general Fred Hitz tells VOA he is shocked at what the memos reveal. "I was appalled. When you read through it it's sort of like it's a memo out of some science fiction movie - I mean, the temperature of the air can't be any lower than thus and so, you can't do it for any few minutes. It's like you're reading a manual that would have been more appropriate during the Nazi era than in the United States of America," he said.

In a statement, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said the techniques may appear graphic and disturbing now. But he adds that they should be judged in the context of the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when fear was widespread and there was little understanding of the new terrorist threat.

But the techniques are not considered all that unusual among professional intelligence interrogators.

Mike Ritz, a former army interrogator, says the techniques are very familiar to anyone who has gone through what is dubbed SERE training - survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. In SERE training military personnel are subjected to many of the same techniques to toughen them up for possible capture by an enemy - and Ritz says SERE trainers were imported to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. But Ritz, who has both undergone and conducted SERE training, says there is a great degree of difference between training and actual interrogations, where harsh techniques may be combined and carried out for longer periods.

"What we've proven to be useful and what does work is having a person in a stressed state, and then reducing that stress because it's that contrast is what motivates a person to cooperate, what motivates a person to start talking. It's the contrast between stress and no stress. The question becomes, well, how much stress do you need to have before you lower the stress?," he said.

The memos were released - with very little information blacked out - to forestall a court-ordered release under a lawsuit. Some national security officials, including CIA director Leon Panetta, are reported to have opposed their release or to have at least more information censored out of them. But they were overruled by President Obama.

In ordering the memos' release, President Obama assured the CIA that its officers who used rough interrogation tactics will not be prosecuted for their actions.

Former CIA inspector general Fred Hitz says that while he finds the interrogation techniques abhorrent, he agrees with the president's decision. "Those memoranda are directed to the acting general counsel of CIA. The CIA was going in the front door, so to speak - you want us to get this information, tell us what is permissible and what is not. And the guidance was in my judgment flawed. But I don't think you can then turn around and prosecute the interrogators for doing what they were told was permissible," he said.

However, some human rights groups are calling for a fuller inquiry into the interrogation practices, and have expressed dismay at the president's decision to allow CIA officers immunity from prosecution.

Earlier this month CIA director Panetta banned the use of contract - that is, non-employee - interrogators and ordered the agency's network of secret prisons to be shut down.