WASHINGTON (AP) — CIA interrogators threatened to kill the children of one detainee at the height of the Bush administration's efforts to combat terrorism and implied that another's mother would be sexually assaulted, newly declassified documents revealed Monday as the government launched a criminal investigation into the spy agency's "unauthorized, improvised, inhumane" practices.
At the same time, the Obama administration announced a new policy for future interrogations — under White House supervision.
With the release of the five-year-old CIA documents, the Justice Department began a probe into the spy agency's tactics, under the direction of a veteran prosecutor who has been looking into other aspects of the interrogations.
The documents released by the CIA's inspector general under a court order said interrogators went too far — even beyond what was authorized under Justice Department legal memos that have since been withdrawn and discredited. President Barack Obama has said questioners would not face charges if they followed the legal guidelines, but the newly released documents suggest some knew they were not.
"Ten years from now we're going to be sorry we're doing this (but) it has to be done," one unidentified CIA officer said in the report, predicting that interrogators would someday have to appear in court to answer for such tactics.
Monday's documents represent the largest single release of information about the Bush administration's once-secret system of capturing terrorism suspects and interrogating them in overseas prisons.
In one instance, suspect Abd al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing, was hooded, handcuffed and threatened with an unloaded gun and a power drill. The unidentified interrogator also threatened Nashiri's mother and family, implying that they would be sexually abused in front of him, according to the report.
Other interrogators told Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed that "if anything else happens in the United States, 'We're going to kill your children,'" one veteran officer said in the report.
Death threats violate anti-torture laws, and interrogators denied making a direct threat.
In another instance, an interrogator pinched the carotid artery of a detainee until he started to pass out, then shook him awake. He did this three times. The interrogator said he had never been taught how to conduct detainee questioning.
Investigators credited the detention-and-interrogation program for developing key intelligence. One CIA operative interviewed for the report said the program thwarted al-Qaida plots to attack the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, derail trains, blow up gas stations and cut the suspension line of a bridge.
"In this regard, there is no doubt that the program has been effective," investigators wrote, bolstering an argument by former Vice President Dick Cheney and others that the program saved lives.
But it is unclear whether so-called "enhanced interrogation" tactics contributed to that success, according to the report. Those tactics include waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique that the Obama administration says is torture. Measuring the success of such interrogation is "a more subjective process and not without some concern," the report said.
The report describes at least one mock execution, which would violate U.S. anti-torture laws. To terrify one detainee, interrogators pretended to execute a prisoner in a nearby room. A senior officer said it was a transparent ruse that yielded no benefit to interrogators.
As the report was released, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed veteran prosecutor John Durham to open a preliminary investigation into the claims of abuse. Durham is already investigating the destruction of CIA interrogation videos and will now will examine whether CIA officers or contractors broke laws in handling of suspects.
The administration also announced Monday that all U.S. interrogators will follow the rules for detainees laid out by the Army Field Manual. That decision aims to end years of fierce debate over how rough U.S. personnel can get with terror suspects in custody.
Formation of a new interrogation unit for "high-value" detainees does not mean the CIA is out of the business of questioning terror suspects, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton told reporters covering the vacationing president in Massachusetts.
Burton said the unit will include "all these different elements under one group" and will be located at the FBI headquarters in Washington.
The structure of the new unit the White House is creating would depart significantly from such work under the previous administration, when the CIA had the lead and sometimes exclusive role in questioning al-Qaida suspects.
Obama campaigned vigorously against the Bush administration's interrogation practices in his successful run for the presidency. He has said more recently he didn't particularly favor prosecuting Bush administration officials in connection with instances of prisoner abuse. Obama still believes "we should be looking forward, not backward," Burton said Monday.
Nonetheless, the spokesman added, Obama believes the attorney general should be fully independent from the White House and he has full faith in Holder to make the decision on whether to reopen several such cases with an eye toward possible criminal prosecution. "He ultimately is going to make the decisions," Burton said of Holder.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an e-mail message to agency employees Monday that he intends "to stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given. That is the president's position, too," he said.
Panetta said some CIA officers have been disciplined for going beyond the methods approved for interrogations by the Bush-era Justice Department. Just one CIA employee— contractor David Passaro— has been prosecuted for detainee abuse.
"The CIA has played a vital role in the work of the task force, and its substantive knowledge will be essential to interrogations going forward," agency spokesman George Little said Monday.