The Pentagon on Tuesday released a now-defunct legal memo that approved the use of harsh interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects, saying that President Bush's authority during wartime trumps any international ban on torture.
The Justice Department memo, dated March 14, 2003, outlines legal justification for military interrogators to use harsh tactics against al-Qaida and Taliban detainees overseas — so long as they did not specifically intend to torture their captors.
Even so, the memo noted, the president's wartime power as commander in chief would not be limited by the U.N. treaties against torture.
"Our previous opinions make clear that customary international law is not federal law and that the president is free to override it at his discretion," said the memo written by John Yoo, who was then deputy assistant attorney general and headed the Office of Legal Counsel.
The memo also offered a defense in case any interrogator was charged with violating U.S. or international laws.
"Finally, even if the criminal prohibitions outlined above applied, and an interrogation method might violate those prohibitions, necessity or self-defense could provide justifications for any criminal liability," the memo concluded.
The memo was rescinded in December 2003, a mere nine months after Yoo sent it to the Pentagon's top lawyer, William J. Haynes. Though its existence has been known for years, its release Tuesday marked the first time its contents in full have been made public.
Haynes, the Defense Department's longest-serving general counsel, resigned in late February to return to the private sector. He has been hotly criticized for his role in crafting Bush administration policies for detaining and trying suspected terrorists that some argue led to prisoner abuses at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Yoo's memo became part of a debate among the Pentagon's civilian and military leaders about what interrogation tactics to allow at overseas facilities and whether U.S. troops might face legal problems domestically or in international courts.
Also of concern was whether techniques used by U.S. interrogators might someday be used as justification for harsh treatment of Americans captured by opposing forces.