CIA director Leon Panetta has written to a federal judge in New York arguing against the release of documents that describe controversial interrogation methods the spy agency used on "war on terror" suspects.
Their disclosure, Panetta wrote, "reasonably could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security by informing our enemies of what we knew about them, and when, and in some instances, how we obtained the intelligence we possessed."
The attempt to block publication of the documents comes just weeks after President Barack Obama barred the release of hundreds of photographs depicting abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan for fear a backlash would endanger US troops in the field.
In March, the CIA admitted in the course of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to having destroyed 92 videos of interrogations of "war on terror" detainees.
But it told Judge Alvin Hellerstein, the judge hearing the case in New York, that it would turn over documents related to the videos, the same documents that Panetta is now refusing to release.
"These top secret communications consist primarily of sensitive intelligence and operational information concerning interrogations of Abu Zubayda," Panetta said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained Tuesday by AFP.
Abu Zubayda, believed to be a senior Al-Qaeda figure, was subjected to a technique called waterboarding, a form of near drowning that has been widely denounced as torture.
The technique was approved in a series of Justice Department legal memos that the Obama administration released earlier this year, touching off a furor with some Democrats demanding an investigation and former vice president Dick Cheney accusing Obama of increasing US vulnerability.
Panetta said the documents now in contention contain "detailed intelligence information," including information provided by captured terrorists and what the CIA did not know about its enemies.
The information in the documents could "permit terrorists to evade questioning" and "could identify CIA officers and others engaged in clandestine counterterrorism operations," he wrote.
The locations of covert CIA facilities overseas and the identities of foreign countries that assisted it in collecting information also would be disclosed, Panetta said.
"This information in these documents would provide future terrorists with a guidebook on how to evade such questioning," he wrote.
Panetta observed that after the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib was disclosed in 2004, al-Qaeda made effective use of the scandal to recruit jihadists and solicit financial report.
The ACLU, meanwhile, vehemently criticized Panetta's arguments, saying they would "justify the greatest governmental suppression of the worst governmental misconduct."
"This information is particularly important because documents that are already public suggest that interrogators disregarded even the minimal limits that the memos set out," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's national security project.
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