Susan Schmidt / Washington Post – 2004-06-11 08:42:00
(June 8, 2004) — Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told Congress today that he would not release to members a 2002 policy memo on the degree of pain and suffering legally permitted during enemy interrogations, but he said he knows of no presidential order that would allow torture for al Qaeda captives.
Angry Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee called on Ashcroft to provide the document, saying leaked portions that have appeared in news reports suggest the Bush administration is reinterpreting U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions prohibiting torture.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the memo on interrogation techniques permissible for the CIA to use “appears to be an effort to redefine torture and narrow prohibitions against it.” The draft document was prepared by the Justice Department’s office of legal policy for White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales.
“There is no presidential order immunizing torture,” Ashcroft told the panel. He cited President Bush’s statement that al Qaeda captives should be treated in a manner consistent with the Geneva Conventions, even if the conventions do not apply to such prisoners, but said he could not discuss whether there had been any order or directive from Bush regarding interrogations.
Ashcroft said he would not discuss the contents of the memo and said he would not turn it over to the committee. “I believe it is essential to the operation of the executive branch that the president have the opportunity to get information from the attorney general that is confidential,” he said.
The memo said that inflicting physical or mental pain might be justified in the war on terror “in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network,” adding that “necessity and self defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability.”
The Bush administration has said that the memo’s discussion notwithstanding, al Qaeda and Taliban detainees, including those held at Guantanamo Bay, have been treated in accord with international conventions prohibiting torture.
“If such a memo existed, do you believe that is good law? Do you think that torture might be justified?” demanded Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.).
“I condemn torture,” Ashcroft responded. “I don’t think it’s productive, let alone justified.”
While he would not comment on the contents of the memo, he said, “It is not the job of the Justice Department or this administration to define torture.” That, he said, has been done in explicit fashion by the Congress in enacting law that bars intentional infliction of “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”
Ashcroft said he would not be drawn into a discussion of the legal boundaries of aggressive interrogation, in part because it would reveal too much to al Qaeda.
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