WASHINGTON — Justice Department documents released Thursday offer the fullest account to date of Bush administration interrogation tactics, including previously undisclosed strategies of slamming a prisoner into a wall and placing an insect in the cell of a detainee terrified of bugs.
The techniques were among the Bush administration's most closely guarded secrets. Authorities said they will not prosecute CIA officers who used harsh interrogation techniques with the department's legal blessing. But in a carefully worded statement, they left open the possibility that operatives and higher-level officials could face jeopardy if they ventured beyond the boundaries drawn by the Bush lawyers.
The four memos, dated from 2002 to 2005, lay out in clinical, painstaking detail a series of practices intended to get 28 terror suspects to share intelligence about past wrongdoing and future attacks. The legalistic analysis under antitorture laws and the Geneva Conventions is at odds with the severity of the strategies, which range from 11-day limits on sleep deprivation to nude shackling and waterboarding.
Step by step, experts considered the legality of slapping prisoners' faces and abdomens, dousing them with water and confining them in a small box, with the last strategy limited to two hours. The techniques were designed to inspire "dread," according to a footnote.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder reassured CIA employees anew Thursday that interrogators would not face criminal prosecution so long as they followed legal advice.
Both Obama and Holder for months have indicated a desire to look forward rather than conduct investigations that could alienate the intelligence community and incite partisan rancor. "This is a time for reflection, not retribution," Obama said.
For the first time, officials said Thursday that they would provide legal representation at no cost to CIA employees subjected to investigations by international tribunals or inquiries from Congress. They also said they would indemnify agency workers against financial judgments.
The announcement appeared to be designed to soothe concerns expressed by top intelligence officials, who had argued in recent weeks that the graphic detail in the memos could bring unwanted attention to interrogators and deter others from joining government service.
CIA director Leon Panetta told employees that the interrogation practices won approval from the highest levels of the Bush administration and that they had nothing to fear if they followed the legal guidance.
"You need to be fully confident that as you defend the nation, I will defend you," Panetta said.
One memo, from May 2005, addressed how CIA officials could employ different combinations of techniques, including a practice known as walling, in which interrogators would press a prisoner's shoulder blades against a fake wall, producing loud noises.
"A detainee may be walled one time (one impact with the wall) to make a point, or twenty to thirty times consecutively when the interrogator requires a more significant response to a question," according to the memo.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden criticized the release of the memos, saying terrorists will now have a precise guide for what to expect in a CIA interrogation if those methods are ever approved for use again.
The memos were released to meet a court-approved deadline in an ACLU lawsuit.