WASHINGTON (AP) – A Pentagon official said in an interview published Wednesday that the United States tortured Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi man who allegedly had hoped to become the “20th hijacker” in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We tortured Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, a retired judge who was appointed convening authority of military commissions in February 2007. Crawford was interviewed by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.

White House press secretary Dana Perino defended the president’s anti-terrorism policy.

“Let me just make sure it’s clear – and I’ll say it on the record one more time – that it has never been the policy of this president or this administration to torture,” Perino said Wednesday.

She referred reporters to the Defense Department for further comment.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman had no direct comment on Crawford’s remark and would not speculate on its possible effect on other cases or the whole of the Bush administration legal structure for so-called enemy combatants.

“We have always taken allegations of abuse seriously, we investigate all allegations, all credible allegations, of abuse,” and have done some dozen investigations of interrogation methods, Whitman said.

The investigations concluded that special interrogations techniques briefly used for a small number of detainees shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks were legal at the time, Whitman said. That includes techniques used on al-Qahtani in 2002, he said.

Al-Qahtani was one of six men charged by the military in February 2008 with murder and war crimes for their alleged roles in the 2001 attacks. But in May, Crawford decided to dismiss the charges against al-Qahtani, who was being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

His Pentagon-appointed attorney, Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, suggested at the time that his client’s harsh interrogation, authorized by the defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, could have influenced the decision.

“In any instance in which the United States wishes to impose the death penalty, my opinion is that such a case requires clean hands on the part of the U.S.,” Broyles said in May.

U.S. authorities had acknowledged that al-Qahtani was subjected to waterboarding by CIA interrogators and that he was treated harshly at Guantanamo.

Al-Qahtani in October 2006 recanted a confession he said he made after he was tortured and humiliated at Guantanamo.

Lawyers for al-Qahtani said Tuesday that he “suffers physical and mental trauma as a result. He should be sent back to Saudi Arabia’s highly successful custodial rehabilitation program.”

“Any case going forward must be tried in ordinary federal criminal courts or it will raise doubts about its legitimacy the world over,” the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, the group representing al-Qahtani, said in a statement.

The alleged torture, which al-Qahtani detailed in a written statement, included being beaten, restrained for long periods in uncomfortable positions, threatened with dogs, exposed to loud music and freezing temperatures and stripped nude in front of female personnel.

In the interview published by the Post on Wednesday, Crawford said: “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that is why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

AP-ES-01-14-09 1440EST

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