WASHINGTON: The US Justice Department will drop a probe of alleged CIA interrogation abuses but will launch a criminal investigation into two detainee deaths, the top justice official said Thursday.
“The department has determined that an expanded criminal investigation of the remaining matters is not warranted,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
In announcing the formal criminal investigation, Holder did not identify the two detainees who died in CIA custody in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks by al Qaeda on New York and Washington.
Holder had directed Assistant US Attorney John Durham two years ago to review the CIA interrogations of 101 detainees at secret sites overseas to determine whether any laws were broken.
“Durham and his team reviewed a tremendous volume of information pertaining to the detainees... I have accepted his recommendation to conduct a full criminal investigation regarding the death in custody of two individuals,” Holder said.
CIA chief Leon Panetta praised the decision as he left the spy agency to take over the helm of the Pentagon from outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
“On this, my last day as director, I welcome the news that the broader inquiries are behind us. We are now finally about to close this chapter of our agency's history,” Panetta said.
Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also welcomed the move, saying that Holder's decision “is a significant step forward.” He added in a statement that he was “pleased” the Department of Justice “finally substantially lifted an undeserved cloud of doubt and suspicion from all of our intelligence professionals.” Many good people were vindicated today,” he said.
The investigation had been criticized from all corners when it was launched in 2009.
Rights groups argued the review did not go far enough, alleging that controversial “enhanced” interrogation techniques were widespread under the previous administration of President George W. Bush.
Members of Bush's team and Republican officials had slammed the probe, with former US vice president Dick Cheney declaring the effort an “outrageous political act.”
Durham's investigation was limited to examining whether there was sufficient evidence to charge individual agents with violating the special interrogation rules they were given after September 11.
The review examined “primarily whether any unauthorized interrogation techniques were used by CIA interrogators,” and if so, whether the techniques constituted “violations of the torture statute or any other applicable statute,” noted Holder.
President Barack Obama had previously made clear that CIA interrogators, who acted on the basis of legal guidelines drawn up by the Bush administration, would not face the full extent of the law.