WASHINGTON -- In August 2002, the Justice Department advised the White House that torturing Al Qaeda terrorists in captivity abroad ''may be justified," and that international laws against torture ''may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations" conducted in President Bush's war on terrorism, according to a newly obtained memo.
If a government employee were to torture a suspect in captivity, ''he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the Al Qaeda terrorist network," said the memo, from the Justice Department's office of legal counsel, written in response to a CIA request for legal guidance.
The memo was offered after the CIA began detaining and interrogating suspected Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and elsewhere after the Sept. 11, 2002, attacks, according to government officials familiar with the document.
The legal reasoning in the 2002 memo, which covered treatment of Al Qaeda detainees in CIA custody, was later used in a March 2003 report by Pentagon lawyers assessing interrogation rules governing the Defense Department's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At that time, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had asked the lawyers to examine the logistical, policy, and legal issues associated with interrogation techniques.
Bush administration officials say flatly that, despite the discussion of legal issues in the two memos, it has abided by international conventions barring torture, and that detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere have been treated humanely, except in the cases of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq for which seven military police soldiers have been charged.
Still, the 2002 and 2003 memos reflect the Bush administration's desire to explore the limits on how far it could legally go in aggressively interrogating foreigners suspected of terrorism or of having information that could thwart future attacks.
In the 2002 memo, written for the CIA and addressed to White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, the Justice Department defined torture in a much narrower way than does the US Army, which has historically carried out most wartime interrogations.
In the Justice Department's view -- contained in a 50-page document signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee and obtained by The
By contrast, the Army's Field Manual 34-52, titled ''Intelligence Interrogations," sets more restrictive rules. For example, the Army prohibits pain induced by chemicals or bondage; forcing an individual to stand, sit or kneel in abnormal positions for prolonged periods of time; and food deprivation. Under mental torture, the Army prohibits mock executions, sleep deprivation, and chemically induced psychosis.
Human rights groups expressed dismay at the Justice Department's legal reasoning.
''It is by leaps and bounds the worst thing I've seen since this whole Abu Ghraib scandal broke," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. ''It appears that what they were contemplating was the commission of war crimes and looking for ways to avoid legal accountability. The effect is to throw out years of military doctrine and standards on interrogations."
But a spokesman for the White House counsel's office said, ''The president directed the military to treat Al Qaeda and Taliban humanely and consistent with the Geneva Conventions."