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By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - CIA interrogators who used waterboarding on terrorism suspects will not face prosecution, President Barack Obama said on Thursday in releasing Bush-era memos specifying that the practice did not constitute torture.
Obama affirmed his administration's unwillingness to prosecute under antitorture laws CIA personnel who relied in good faith on Bush administration legal opinions issued after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The four memos Obama released approved techniques including waterboarding, week-long sleep deprivation, nudity and putting insects in with a tightly confined prisoner.
Obama was trying to balance between showing the world he would break with former President George W. Bush over the widely condemned treatment of terrorism suspects, and preserving the effectiveness of his intelligence agencies.
"I have already ended the techniques described in the memos," Obama said in a written statement released shortly after he arrived on a visit to Mexico.
However, he said "The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. ... We must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs."
The Obama administration also said it would try to shield CIA employees from "any international or foreign tribunal" -- an immediate challenge to Spain, where a judge has threatened to investigate Bush administration officials.
Human rights advocates denounced Obama, saying charges were needed to prevent future abuses and hold people accountable, and some lawmakers called for public investigations.
"There can be no more excuses for putting off criminal investigations of officials who authorized torture, lawyers who justified it and interrogators who broke the law," American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero said.
Administration officials within the Justice Department or the White House were not covered by Obama's policy, a department official said. But he gave no sign that any criminal investigation was being contemplated.
METHODS EXCEED MILITARY LIMITS
The four memos were released in response to an ACLU Freedom of Information lawsuit. They represent the Bush administration's legal justification for interrogation methods that far exceed U.S. military limits and have been called "torture" by U.S. critics and many countries.
Violating U.S. laws against torture is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, or if a person dies, by execution or life in prison.
The first memo, from 2002, approves waterboarding -- a form of simulated drowning -- and other harsh techniques on suspected high-level al Qaeda figure Abu Zubaydah. It was written by former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee for the CIA's top lawyer, John Rizzo. The CIA has confirmed that two other high-level al Qaeda suspects were waterboarded.
"We find that the use of the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death" -- one of the criteria for torture, the memo said. "It creates in the subject the uncontrollable physiological sensation that the subject is drowning."
However, it said, "in the absence of prolonged mental harm, no severe mental pain or suffering would have been inflicted, and the use of these procedures would not constitute torture within the meaning of the statute.
The memo described waterboarding as the final point in a chain of harsh techniques, which also including slapping and shoving a suspect into a wall, aimed at persuading Zubaydah to reveal information interrogators were certain he had.
One memo said 28 terrorism suspects received harsh interrogations out of 94 held in the CIA's detention program.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the United States would pay for lawyers to defend any CIA employees in state or federal proceedings over interrogations and indemnify them from suits.
The actions are unlikely to end debate. "This is not the end of the road on these issues. More requests will come -- from the public, from Congress, and the courts -- and more information is sure to be released," CIA Director Leon Panetta said in a letter to employees.
The Justice Department is probing internally whether Bybee and other memo-writers violated professional responsibilities.
The Democratic head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, pressed for a public inquiry - as opposed to the closed Intelligence Committee probe Panetta has supported.
(Additional reporting by Jim Vicini, Tabassum Zakaria and Ross Colvin)
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