New Letters Open Door to Harsh Interrogation by CIA in Face of Attack

CIA interrogation techniques otherwise prohibited by international law might be legal in the face of an impending terrorist attack, the Justice Department says in newly disclosed letters to Capitol Hill.

The letters show that the Bush administration is taking the position that it has latitude in dealing with restrictions from the Supreme Court and Congress designed to limit how far interrogators in the U.S. intelligence community can go.

Among the issues is a Geneva Conventions ban on outrages upon personal dignity, a provision the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 applies to prisoners in American captivity.

"The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation and abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act," said a Justice Department letter dated March 6.

The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The detainee act requires an exact analysis of the circumstances in determining whether it has been violated, the department said in a separate letter.

Actions which may in one setting constitute a denial of fundamental fairness may in other circumstances fall short of a denial, said one of the Justice Department letters that relied on a decade-old Supreme Court decision.

The letters shed some light on questions that have gone largely unanswered by the Bush administration since last July.

At that time, President Bush issued an executive order on interrogations saying the CIA would comply with Geneva Conventions prohibitions against outrages upon personal dignity. But the order is short on specifics and the interrogation methods themselves are not public.

Questions by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., led to the latest disclosures.

The New York Times first reported on the letter in its Sunday editions.