The 17-page document states flatly that torture violates U.S. and international law and omits two of the most controversial assertions made in now-disavowed 2002 Justice Department documents: that President Bush, as commander in chief in wartime, had authority superseding U.S. anti-torture laws and that U.S. personnel had several legal defenses against criminal liability in such cases.
"Consideration of the bounds of any such authority would be inconsistent with the president's unequivocal directive that United States personnel not engage in torture," said the memo from Daniel Levin, acting chief of the Office of Legal Counsel, to Deputy Attorney General James Comey.
Critics in Congress and many legal experts say the original documents set up a legal framework that led to abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in Afghanistan and at the U.S. prison camp for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After the Iraqi prison abuses came to light, the Justice Department in June disavowed its previous legal reasoning and set to work on the replacement document to be released Friday.
The Justice Department memo, dated Thursday, was being released less than a week before the Senate Judiciary Committee was to consider Bush's nomination of his chief White House counsel,
Alberto Gonzales, to replace John Ashcroft as attorney general.
Democrats have said they would question Gonzales closely on memos he wrote that were similar to the now-disavowed Justice Department documents that critics said appeared to justify torture.
The release also coincided with continuing revelations of possible detainee abuse, most recently a series of memos from FBI agents uncovered in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit alleging instances of Defense Department wrongdoing during a variety of interrogations.
The new Justice Department memo sets a far different tone, beginning with this sentence: "Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms."