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Amid Release of CIA Documents, Prosecutor to Investigate Alleged Abuse Cases

BY Anna Shoup  August 24, 2009 at 6:19 PM EST

Attorney General Eric Holder

During the height of the Bush administration’s war on terror, CIA interrogators threatened to kill a detainee’s children and implied that another detainee’s mother would be sexually assaulted in front of him, according to documents released Monday.

Meanwhile, the government has launched a criminal investigation into the CIA’s “unauthorized, improvised, inhumane” practices.

The Justice Department is probing the spy agency’s tactics under the direction of a veteran prosecutor who has been investigating into other aspects of the interrogations, which were detailed in newly declassified documents.

The White House also announced its policy for future interrogations, which will take place under its supervision.

The five-year-old documents released under a court order by the CIA’s inspector general said interrogators went too far — even beyond what was authorized under Justice Department legal memos that have since been withdrawn and discredited. President Barack Obama has said government interrogators questioners would not face charges if they followed legal guidelines, but the newly released documents suggest some knew they were not.

“Ten years from now we’re going to be sorry we’re doing this (but) it has to be done,” said an unidentified CIA officer in the report, predicting that interrogators would someday have to appear in court to answer for such tactics.

The report also said CIA employees “are concerned that public revelation” of the interrogation program will “seriously damage” their reputations as well as “the reputation and effectiveness of the agency itself.”

In a Monday morning message to the agency’s employees, CIA Director Leon Panetta described the release of the documents as “in many ways an old story,” noting that “the challenge is not the battles of yesterday, but those of today and tomorrow,” the Washington Post reported.

“My emphasis on the future comes with a clear recognition that our Agency takes seriously proper accountability for the past,” said Panetta in the message, which was released by the CIA. “As the intelligence service of a democracy, that’s an important part of who we are.”

The documents released Monday represent the largest cache of information about the Bush administration’s once-secret system of capturing terrorism suspects and interrogating them in overseas prisons.

In one instance, suspect Abd al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing, was hooded, handcuffed and threatened with an unloaded gun and a power drill, the Associated Press reported. The unidentified interrogator also threatened Nashiri’s mother and family, implying that they would be sexually abused in front of him, according to the report.

Other interrogators told Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed that “if anything else happens in the United States, ‘We’re going to kill your children,”‘ one veteran officer said in the report.

Investigators credited the interrogation program for developing some key intelligence. A CIA operative interviewed for the report said the program thwarted al-Qaida plots to attack the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, derail trains, blow up gas stations and cut the suspension line of a bridge, according to the AP.

“In this regard, there is no doubt that the program has been effective,” investigators wrote, bolstering an argument by former Vice President Dick Cheney and others that the program saved lives.

But it’s unclear whether so-called “enhanced interrogation” tactics contributed to that success, according to the report. Those tactics include waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique that the Obama administration has said is torture.

Amid the release of the documents, Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed veteran prosecutor John Durham to open a preliminary investigation into the claims of abuse. Durham is already investigating the destruction of CIA interrogation videos and will now examine whether CIA officers or contractors broke laws in handling suspects.

The Obama administration also said Monday that all U.S. interrogators will follow rules for detainees laid out by the Army Field Manual. That decision aims to end years of fierce debate over how rough U.S. personnel can get with terror suspects in custody.

Formation of a new interrogation unit for “high-value” detainees does not mean the CIA is out of the business of questioning terror suspects, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton told reporters.

Burton said the unit will include “all these different elements under one group” and will be located at the FBI headquarters in Washington.

The structure of the new unit the White House is creating would depart significantly from such work under the previous administration, when the CIA had the lead and sometimes exclusive role in questioning al-Qaida suspects.