WASHINGTON The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday released a declassified 2003 memo justifying the use of harsh interrogation methods for suspected terrorists held abroad.
A subsequent decision overruled the memo which said that President George W. Bush's authority as commander-in-chief superseded international law regarding wartime interrogations.
The Pentagon, unlike the intelligence community, specifically prohibited its interrogators from using certain harsh methods, including a simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding. That prohibition was outlined in an update to the Army field manual released in 2006.
The 81-page memo, dated March 14, 2003, was written before that field manual release by then Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo to Pentagon General Counsel William Hayes.
Yoo wrote: "We concluded that different canons of construction indicate that generally applicable criminal laws do not apply to the military interrogation of alien unlawful combatants held abroad.
"Were it otherwise, the application of these statutes to the interrogation of enemy combatants undertaken by military personnel would conflict with the president's commander-in-chief power."
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy has asked the White House to declassify secret Justice Department opinions on interrogation practices. The declassification of the memo was "a small step forward," said Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
"The memo they have declassified today reflects the expansive view of executive power that has been the hallmark of the administration," he said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the memo was released in response to a lawsuit filed by its New York office and other organizations in June 2004 requesting records concerning the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody abroad.
"Senior officials at the Justice Department gave the Pentagon the green light to torture prisoners," said Amrit Singh, an ACLU staff attorney. "It is outrageous that none of these high-level officials have been brought to task yet for their role in authorizing prisoner abuse."
While the military has banned the use of waterboarding and other harsh methods considered by some rights advocates to be torture, the U.S. Intelligence community has not.
Bush authorized the CIA to use waterboarding after the September 11 attacks in 2001 but has repeatedly insisted that the United States does not torture prisoners.
The CIA has said it used waterboarding during the interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who faces murder charges in the U.S. military war court at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
(Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts, editing by Chris Wilson)