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Holder Names Prosecutor To Probe Interrogations

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It has been a landmark day in the debate over torture. This morning, the White House announced the creation of a special team of interrogators to gather information from the most sensitive terrorism suspects. We'll hear about more about that team in a moment. But first, Attorney General Eric Holder announced this afternoon that a prosecutor will investigate whether CIA interrogators broke anti-torture laws. The appointment of John Durham came as the Justice Department released hundreds of pages documenting some of the worst cases of detainee abuse from the Bush administration.

NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us now. And Ari, first, tell us more about John Durham, the prosecutor who is going to be investigating these interrogations.

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, he's a federal prosecutor from Connecticut who has worked for the Justice Department for decades. And he already is investigating something closely related to this question of whether torture was committed. For the last year or so, he's been investigating whether the CIA broke a law by destroying videotapes depicting harsh interrogations.

So Attorney General Eric Holder has now asked him to expand his investigation. Holder called this a preliminary review to find out whether a full investigation is warranted. If so, charges could be brought against interrogators, or perhaps not.

Justice lawyers in the previous administration reviewed the same facts and concluded that a prosecution was not warranted, but Attorney General Holder disagreed.

BLOCK: And was it the release of those documents from the Justice Department that we mentioned earlier, that led to the appointment of John Durham as prosecutor today?

SHAPIRO: That was one of the things that led him to conclude that a prosecutor was appropriate. The other thing was an investigation by a team of Justice Department ethics lawyers who have not released their report publicly yet. But Attorney General Holder saw the ethics lawyers' investigation, saw their conclusions. And they recommended that he appoint somebody to look into this and revisit the previous administration's conclusion that prosecutions were not appropriate. So it was the combination of those two things: The ethics lawyers' conclusion and the inspector general report from the CIA.

BLOCK: And of the hundreds of pages of documents released today, what are some of the key details that have emerged in that inspector general report from the CIA?

SHAPIRO: Well, there are all sorts of accounts about harsh techniques that were used in interrogations that went even beyond the Justice Department's most lenient legal guidance. For example, there is one account of a mock execution, where a gun was fired in a room adjacent to the interrogation room. And then somebody who was made to look like a dead detainee was carried past the man being interrogated.

In another instance, a detainee was threatened with a gun and with a power drill. One detainee was told: We're going to kill your children. Another detainee was threatened that his mother could be sexually abused. Those are some of the specific incidents that Eric Holder has asked John Durham to look into.

BLOCK: And reaction today from within the Obama administration?

SHAPIRO: Well, the spokesman for the White House said the president believes this is the attorney general's decision to make. President Obama said he wants to look forward, but not backward. Holder said he shares that view, but given all the information available to him, he said he has no choice but to call for this investigation. He said it's the only responsible course of action for him to take.

CIA Director Leon Panetta sent a letter to all agency employees, where he called the news of abuses an old story. He said people have been disciplined for these abuses. And he promised to stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal advice they were given. Of course, this investigation is looking into the people who did not follow the legal advice they were given and did some more extreme things.

BLOCK: Now, besides the report by the CIA inspector general released today, I understand the administration also released some documents that former Vice President Dick Cheney had been asking for.

SHAPIRO: That's right. These are memos about the information that was gleaned from harsh interrogations. There are two documents. One is specifically about the detainee named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - some of the harshest techniques were used against him. The other is broader and it's about information that was gleaned from several different al-Qaida detainees.

And so, through these hundreds of pages of documents, we have two very different competing views on harsh interrogations, whether they worked or whether they didn't. One question that is not answered in any of these documents is whether traditional interrogation techniques could have worked when the harsh interrogations were used instead.

BLOCK: NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro, thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.