WASHINGTON – Former Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday "it was not a hard decision" to withdraw Justice Department legal opinions that approved the use of harsh interrogation methods which critics say amount to torture.
Ashcroft, testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee, said he did not necessarily disagree with the conclusions of the two memos that were written in 2002 and 2003 but later rescinded. But he said the legal reasoning behind both memos was flawed and needed to be corrected.
At the heart of both opinions was a controversial definition of torture. It said "only extreme acts" that cause pain similar in intensity to that caused by death or organ failure should be prohibited in the interrogations of terrorist suspects. Ashcroft, who served as attorney general from 2001 to 2005, had initially approved both memos. They were written in part at least by former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo.
"It became apparent in the further examination of those opinions, when made in another timeframe, that there were matters of concerns that were brought to my opinion," Ashcroft told lawmakers. "It was not a hard decision for me."
He added that he relied on his staff attorneys — and Yoo in particular — to give him sound legal advice.
Though the memos were later replaced with a new, narrower policy about what methods would be allowed, that did not "call into question any of the actual interrogation practices that the OLC had previously approved as legal," Ashcroft said. OLC stands for the Office of Legal Counsel, which writes the Justice Department's legal opinions for the president.
"When I was informed about concerns regarding overly broad advice, the limits of which were never tested, I directed the OLC to correct it," Ashcroft said.
Democrats peppered Ashcroft with questions about how often waterboarding was used by interrogators who were following the now-defunct legal opinions.
Waterboarding involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his or her cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning. It has been traced back hundreds of years, to the Spanish Inquisition, and is condemned by nations around the world. Critics call it a form of torture.
Ashcroft said he was aware of three times that interrogators waterboarded terror suspects. He said he does not believe waterboarding, as it was then described by the CIA, amounted to torture.
The Bush administration maintains waterboarding was legal when it was used by CIA interrogators in 2002 and 2003 on top al-Qaida detainees Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. CIA Director Michael Hayden has said waterboarding was used, in part, because of widespread belief among U.S. intelligence officials that more catastrophic attacks were imminent.
Hayden banned waterboarding in CIA interrogations in 2006. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has refused to publicly discuss whether waterboarding is currently legal since it is no longer used by CIA interrogators.