The Justice Department has opened full criminal investigations of the deaths in CIA custody of two detainees, including one who perished at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The decision, announced by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., means continued legal jeopardy for several CIA operatives but at the same time closes the book on inquiries that potentially threatened many others. A federal prosecutor reviewed 101 cases in which agency officers and contractors interrogated suspected terrorists during years of military action after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but found cause to pursue criminal cases in only two.
At CIA headquarters on Thursday, Holder’s announcement was greeted with relief. But one former CIA official who was involved in overseeing the interrogation program said that the ongoing legal cloud will be a concern at the agency. Even operatives who are not targets of the criminal case may have to testify before a grand jury.
“It’s good that he’s narrowed things down to two cases,” the former CIA official said. “On the other hand, he’s been looking at these cases for two years and all he can say is they need more investigating? It’s draining on people involved. On resources. We need some sort of finality.”
Meanwhile, human rights groups, which had called for a full criminal investigation of the program — including its creators and those who ran it — expressed disappointment.
“It is difficult to understand the prosecutor’s conclusion that only those two deaths warrant further investigation,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the National Security Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. “For a period of several years, and with the approval of the Bush administration’s most senior officials, the CIA operated an interrogation program that subjected prisoners to unimaginable cruelty and violated both international and domestic law. The narrow investigation that Attorney General Holder announced today is not proportionate to the scale and scope of the wrongdoing.”
The Justice Department said it would not prosecute any CIA personnel who acted in good faith and followed the guidance of the Office of Legal Counsel.
But Holder ordered a “preliminary review” by John Durham, an assistant United States attorney from Connecticut, to find out whether any unauthorized interrogation techniques were used at overseas locations.