The American Civil Liberties Union sued the U.S. government Thursday to try to prove there is a close link between the White House under President George W. Bush and a program of rough interrogation techniques used against suspected terrorists.
The ACLU said in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan that it wanted to force the public release of all records on the subject issued by Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials.
Defendants named in the lawsuit were the CIA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice and the Department of State.
On Monday, CIA Director Leon Panetta said in court papers responding to a related lawsuit that releasing documents about the agency's terror interrogations would gravely damage national security.
A Justice Department probe is under way to learn more about the CIA's destruction of 92 videotapes of detainee interrogations that took place in 2002. Officials have said a dozen of those tapes show so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which critics call torture.
Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for U.S. government lawyers in Manhattan, declined to comment. A message for comment left with the Justice Department in Washington was not immediately returned.
The ACLU and other civil rights groups in October 2003 brought a similar lawsuit seeking to use the Freedom of Information Act to get records about the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody abroad. As a result, more than 100,000 pages of government documents have been released.
Direct role of White House?
Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said the latest legal action was taken after published reports suggested the White House had a direct role in the efforts to change interrogation techniques after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Jaffer said that when the ACLU first sought documents related to detainee abuse in 2003, it suspected that abuses carried out by the Defense Department and CIA might reflect a broader pattern.
"But we did not consider the possibility that lawyers in the Justice Department and people at the highest levels of the Bush administration were engaged in developing and implementing a far-reaching and brutal torture program," he said. "That is something that was a shock to us, just like it was a shock to most other people."
He said the lawsuits were an effort to create a "complete public record of how the torture program was developed and on whose authority."
The Justice Department has been studying the conduct of the lawyers who wrote legal memos authorizing the CIA to take harsh measures to force terror suspect to talk, including sleep deprivation and waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning.
The memos were made public earlier this year by the administration of President Barack Obama, prompting some critics of the Bush administration to call for criminal prosecutions against those who authorized the measures.
Obama has said no CIA officials will be prosecuted for following the legal advice they receive