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DOJ says terror threat could excuse abusive interrogation

[JURIST] The US Justice Department told a member of the US Senate Intelligence Committee [offical website] that abusive or humiliating interrogations of terror suspects ostensibly prohibited by the common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions on "outrages upon personal dignity" might be permissible if "undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse," the New York Times reported Sunday. The newly-released letters [letter 1, PDF; letter 2, PDF] to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) [official website], written in September 2007 and March 2008 in response to questions filed with the Department, addressed apparent limitations set down in an executive order issued by President Bush in 2007 directing the CIA to comply with international rules protecting detainees [JURIST report]. The letters suggest that the Department is not taking a broad view of the limits, but is rather addressing them in context, raising the possibility that the motive of an interrogator in the face of specific threat may be relevant to a determination of an interrogation's legality. The New York Times has more. The terrorist threat discussion in the March 2 letter evokes, but does not explicitly cite, the classic and highly controversial "ticking-bomb" torture hypothetical made famous by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in a November 2001 Los Angeles Times op-ed.

Last week FBI Director Robert Mueller told the US House Judiciary Committee [JURIST report] that he had advised officials at the Departments of Justice and Defense that some interrogation tactics employed by US personnel against terror suspects might be illegal. Mueller said that the FBI had first raised concerns about the use of harsh interrogation methods in 2002, when CIA interrogators used waterboarding [JURIST news archive] on several alleged al Qaeda leaders, but declined to say how other agencies had reacted to FBI concerns. Last month the Senate failed to override a presidential veto [JURIST report] of a measure [HR 2082 materials] restricting CIA interrogators to using only those interrogation techniques explicitly authorized by the 2006 Army Field Manual, which specifically prohibits the use of waterboarding and other harsh tactics.

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