Angry Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee believe the Bush administration has been trying to reinterpret both US law and Geneva Convention on the “T” word: Torture

Attorney General John Ashcroft told Congress on Tuesday that he would not release a 2002 policy memo on the degree of pain and suffering legally permitted during enemy interrogations, but said he knows of no presidential order that would allow Al-Qaida captives to be tortured by U.S. personnel.

Angry Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee called on Ashcroft to provide the document, saying portions that have appeared in news reports suggest the Bush administration is reinterpreting U.S. law and the Geneva Convention prohibiting torture.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the memo on interrogation techniques permissible for the CIA to use on suspected Al-Qaida operatives “appears to be an effort to redefine torture and narrow prohibitions against it.” The draft document was prepared by the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel for the CIA and addressed to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales.

The 50-page Justice Department memo said inflicting physical or psychological pain might be justified in the war on terror “in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the Al-Qaida terrorist network,” adding that “necessity and self-defense could provide justifications that would eliminate any criminal liability.”

The Bush administration has said the discussion in the memo notwithstanding, Al-Qaida and Taliban detainees, including those held at Guantánamo Bay, have been treated in accord with international conventions prohibiting torture.

The memo and a second written by Pentagon lawyers surfaced in news reports this week amid the ongoing abuse scandal at Iraq’s Abu Ghurayb prison. The documents reflect discussions on the legality of softening prohibitions against inflicting pain on Al-Qaida captives abroad, saying the practice may sometimes be justified.

Ashcroft, whose hard-line approach to the war on terror has made him a lightning rod for criticism from civil libertarians, came under fire during a previously scheduled oversight hearing on a day that brought news of the memos.

“There is no presidential order immunizing torture,” Ashcroft told the Judiciary panel. He cited President Bush’s statement that Al-Qaida captives should be treated in a manner consistent with the Geneva Convention, even though the administration has chosen not to designate the detainees prisoners of war.

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