WASHINGTON, (AFP) – President Barack Obama’s administration lifted the veil further on previous “war on terror” methods, as it ruled out the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique because it amounted to torture.
Hours after Attorney General Eric Holder repudiated anti-terror methods enacted under former president George W. Bush, the Justice Department released nine internal memos and opinions it said gave legal grounding to the controversial policies.
The documents — the first dating from the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks to the last from the months following the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq — detail how Bush gave himself sole power over terror suspects.
“The power to dispose of the liberty of individuals captured … remain in the hands of the president alone,” said a 2002 opinion written by then-assistant attorney general John Yoo on US methods for transferring suspects.
“Congress can no longer regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements,” according to another 2003 opinion written for Alberto Gonzales, then counsel for Bush, which detailed prerogatives for military interrogations.
In another potentially explosive opinion, Bush’s administration also gave itself ample space to skirt international law.
The president’s “power to suspend treaties is wholly discretionary,” according to a memo intended for John Bellinger, who was then legal advisor to the National Security Council.
Self-applied boundaries for executive power gave the White House “unconstrained discretion to suspend treaty obligations of the United States at any time and for any reason,” said Obama’s Justice Department in a statement released alongside the memos.
The house-cleaning move comes as Obama’s administration seeks to distance itself from Bush-era policies.
“Waterboarding is torture,” Holder said earlier Monday in a speech to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs. “My Justice Department will not justify it, will not rationalize it and will not condone it,” he said.
“The use and sanction of torture is at odds with the history of American jurisprudence and American values. It undermines our ability to pursue justice fairly, and it puts our own brave soldiers in peril should they ever be captured on a foreign battlefield.”
Holder is currently leading a review of the treatment of terror suspects.
Obama ordered the review as one of his first acts in office, as he also ordered the closing of the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention center, the CIA’s secret prisons abroad and special interrogation authorities for terror detainees.
In an executive order, Obama required that all interrogations conducted at US facilities worldwide follow the US Army field manual, which bars the use of waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning — and other harsh interrogation techniques.
“Living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger,” Obama told a joint session of Congress in a primetime address last month.
“And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.”
The president has also vowed “swift and certain justice for captured terrorists.”
Many detainees at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have been held there for years without trial, and more than 200 inmates remain.
A Pentagon report in February said that conditions at Guantanamo were in line with the Geneva Conventions but also called for easing the isolation of high-security detainees.
More than 800 detainees have passed through Guantanamo since it was opened on January 11, 2002, as a place to ship suspects in the “war on terror” begun by Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks.