ACLU Seeks Answers on Torture from Former Attorney General Ashcroft

July 17, 2008 12:00 am

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Ashcroft led DOJ when torture memos were penned; important questions remain on torture timeline and role of NSC principals

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WASHINGTON, DC – The American Civil Liberties Union calls on former Attorney General John Ashcroft, in today’s House Judiciary hearing, to provide Congress and the American people with answers to questions about when, why and how the use of torture was authorized. Ashcroft presided over the Department of Justice (DOJ) during President Bush’s first term in office, when the legal rationale for using torture and abuse during interrogations of detainees held by the United States was first articulated in a series of legal memos. The notorious memos, known as the “torture memos,” were produced by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), a DOJ office that assists the attorney general in his function as legal advisor to the president and all executive branch agencies.

“There have been too many questions left unanswered since the American people first learned that our government has authorized and engaged in torture,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “John Ashcroft was the head of the Justice Department when the disastrous legal decisions to use torture were made. He was also present at White House NSC principals meetings, where the use of torture was authorized. The American people deserve to know what happened during those meetings and how this administration tried to undo decades of American law prohibiting torture.”

The ACLU expects to see a focus on the damaging timeline of whether there was any DOJ approval of the use of torture prior to the so-called “golden shield” of the OLC memos. The earliest disclosed OLC memo offering a legal backing for the use of torture was dated August, 2002. Yet, the DOJ inspector general report on the FBI’s role in interrogations stated that the CIA was using abusive interrogation tactics on Abu Zubaydah between March and June of 2002. The report also asserted that FBI agents present were reassured by CIA personnel that the procedures being used on Zubaydah had been approved ‘at the highest levels.’ The CIA has acknowledged that it waterboarded Zubaydah, and that his interrogation was the subject of videotapes destroyed by the CIA.

“There’s a damning timeline here,” added Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU. “The CIA was torturing or abusing Abu Zubaydah at least a couple months before the first OLC torture memo was issued. Ashcroft will have to tell Congress whether the CIA acted during this period with no DOJ approval. Ashcroft’s testimony may undermine now-Attorney General Mukasey’s refusal to appoint an outside special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute any criminal behavior or obstruction of justice in the use of torture. Certainly no one could have relied on a memo that didn’t exist in the spring of 2002.”

The ACLU letter calling on Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the use of torture can be found at:

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