WASHINGTON — The CIA is decommissioning the secret overseas prisons where top al Qaida suspects were subjected to interrogation methods, including simulated drowning, that Attorney General Eric Holder, allied governments, the Red Cross and numerous other experts consider torture, the agency said Thursday.
In an e-mail to the agency's work force outlining current interrogation and detention policies, CIA Director Leon Panetta also announced that agreements with the private security firms guarding the so-called black sites will be "promptly terminated," and contractors no longer will be used to conduct interrogations.
Panetta, however, said that CIA officers who were involved in interrogations using "enhanced" methods authorized by the Justice Department during the Bush administration "should not be investigated, let alone punished."
The Justice Department is investigating the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes, while the Senate Intelligence Committee has launched an inquiry into the interrogation and detention program authorized by the Bush administration as part of its post-9/11 "war on terrorism."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for the creation of a truth commission to investigate the Bush administration's detainee policies, but so far the Obama administration has shown little appetite for the idea.
The steps announced by Panetta are consistent with a Jan. 22 executive order in which President Barack Obama directed the CIA to halt the use of its secret overseas detention facilities and use only interrogation procedures authorized by an Army Field Manual.
Panetta's actions follow the leaking of a confidential February 2007 International Committee of the Red Cross report, made public this week by The New York Review of Books, that concluded that descriptions of the interrogation methods provided in interviews by 14 detainees who underwent them "amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" under international law.
In his e-mail, a copy of which was released by the CIA, Panetta told his work force that he'd written letters to the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees outlining the agency's "current policy regarding interrogation of captured terrorists."
He said he wrote the letters because of ongoing "media and congressional interest" in the detention and interrogation procedures the CIA used from 2002 until Obama's executive order, as well as questions about the agency's use of contract interrogators.
"No CIA contractors will conduct interrogations," Panetta wrote.
Panetta said his agency's pursuit of al Qaida and allied groups has continued "undiminished" in "strict accord" with Obama's order.
"CIA officers do not tolerate, and will continue to promptly report, any inappropriate behavior or allegations of abuse. That holds true whether a suspect is in the custody of an American partner or foreign liaison service," he continued, adding that the agency hasn't detained any suspects since he became director in February.
The decision to terminate contract interrogators followed expressions of concern by lawmakers about the CIA's use of such personnel, one of whom, David Passaro, was convicted in 2006 of abusing an Afghan detainee in 2003 at a U.S. base in Afghanistan. The detainee later died.
Panetta said the CIA "no longer operates" detention facilities and has developed a plan to "decommission" them that includes terminating the contracts with the private security firms that guard them.
"I have directed our Agency personnel to take charge of the decommissioning process," he wrote. "It is estimated that our taking over site security will result in savings of up to $4 million."
Critics of the Bush administration's detainee policies welcomed Panetta's e-mail.
"I have long fought to ban the use of contractors in interrogations and detention operations," Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. "So, I am very pleased that Mr. Panetta has announced that contractors will no longer conduct interrogations."
The CIA has refused to disclose the locations of its detention facilities. They reportedly are in Afghanistan, Jordan, Poland, Romania and Thailand, and CIA officials have said that they held fewer than 100 suspected terrorists.
Panetta said that the CIA is still allowed to hold terror suspects "on a short-term transitory basis," but that, "We anticipate that we would quickly turn over any person in our custody to U.S. military authorities or to their country of jurisdiction, depending on the situation."
The "enhanced" interrogation methods authorized by the Bush administration starting in 2002 included waterboarding, a procedure that simulates drowning. At least three detainees were subjected to the procedure, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged chief architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
During his confirmation hearing, Holder departed from Bush administration policies by declaring that "waterboarding is torture" and that "no one is above the law."
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