An August 2002 memo by the Justice Department that concluded interrogators could use extreme techniques on detainees in the war on terror helped provide an after-the-fact rationale for harsh procedures used by the C.I.A. on high-level leaders of Al Qaeda according to current and former government officials.
The legal memo was prepared after an internal debate within the government about the methods used to extract information from Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s top aides, after his capture in April 2002, the officials said. The memo provided a legal basis for coercive techniques used later against other high-ranking detainees, like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief architect of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, who was captured in early 2003.
The full text of the memo was made public by the White House on Tuesday without any explanation about why it was written or whether its standards were applied. The memo suggested that the president could authorize a wide array of coercive interrogation methods in the campaign against terrorism without violating international treaties or the federal torture law. It did not specify any particular procedures but suggested there were few limits short of causing the death of a prisoner.
It has been known that the methods used on Mr. Zubaydah and other senior Qaeda operatives stirred controversy in government counterterrorism circles. But until now, it was not been clear that the memo was written in response to the Central Intelligence Agency’s efforts to extract information from high-ranking Qaeda suspects, and was unrelated to questions about handling detainees at Guantánamo Bay or in Iraq.
While the memo appeared to give the C.I.A. wide latitude in adopting tactics to interrogate high-level Qaeda detainees, it is still unclear exactly what procedures were used or the extent to which the memo influenced the government’s overall thinking about interrogations of other terror detainees captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The officials said the memo illustrated that the Bush administration, in the months after the September 2001 attacks, was urgently looking for ways to force senior Qaeda detainees to disclose whether they knew of any future terrorist attacks planned against the United States.
The memo, which is dated Aug. 1, 2002, was a seminal legal document guiding the government’s thinking on interrogation. It was disavowed earlier this week by senior legal advisers to a Bush administration trying to contain the diplomatic and political damage caused by the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. The legal advisers said the memo would be reviewed and revised because it created a false impression that torture could be legally defensible.
In repudiating the memo in briefings this week, none of the senior Bush legal advisers whom the White House made available to reporters would discuss who had requested that the memo be prepared, why it had been prepared or how it was applied.