GENEVA — A senior US official said on Friday that waterboarding was clearly outlawed as torture, with an investigation still under way to see if those who ordered such a practice could be prosecuted.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that former president George W. Bush said in his memoirs that he personally gave the go-ahead for CIA officers to use waterboarding on self-confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Harold Koh, legal adviser at the US State Department, said on the sidelines of a UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva that "there has been a turning of the page" under President Barack Obama.
"I think that the Obama administration defines waterboarding as torture as a matter of law under the convention against torture and as part of our legal obligation... it's not a policy choice," Koh told journalists after being asked about the report.
Asked whether the United States was still considering investigation or federal prosecution of those who might have ordered such a practice in the past, Koh said the matter was being examined by Special Prosecutor John Durham in Connecticut.
"Those investigations are ongoing. So the question is not whether they would consider it, they're going on right now," he explained.
Obama changed the policy on his second day in office. He added in 2009 that operatives who carried out the interrogations would not be prosecuted, saying they acted on orders and were defending their country.
Some human rights experts told the Washington Post that Bush's memoir acknowledgement could theoretically expose him to prosecution, but that such legal action was unlikely.
Last year, the US Senate Intelligence Committee said the CIA first sought to use what Bush described as "enhanced" interrogation techniques including waterboarding in May 2002, after Attorney General John Ashcroft concluded that it was lawful.
Koh underlined that the narrow definition of torture that allowed such activities at the time relied on an opinion of the office of legal counsel at the justice department.
"That has been withdrawn and also declared to be legally incorrect," he said
The United States ratified the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment in 1994.
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