The documents, many of them declassified from "secret," originated at the Pentagon, the White House and the Justice Department.
Two inches thick, the documents chronicled how the administration grappled between January 2002 and April 2003 with how aggressively interrogators should push detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other facilities.
The memos were meant to deal with a public-relations headache that followed revelations about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq — but the documents shed little light on the situation in that country.
Besides providing the papers, top administration lawyers gave lengthy briefings in hopes of countering a perception that the administration felt the fight against the al Qaeda terror network provided a legal foundation for mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq.
"It was harmful to this country in terms of the notion that we may be engaged in torture," said White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales "That's contrary to the values of this president and this administration."
The administration decided to release the papers to fight the "constant drip on this issue" — a continuous stream of leaks and accusations that the administration had stepped outside the bounds of international law, a senior official said earlier Tuesday. "Everyone reached the conclusion that the administration had authorized torture," he said.
The official, saying the United States is facing a new kind of war with an enemy that does not respect or operate under the rules of the Geneva Convention, pointed to the kidnapping and beheading of American civilian engineerin Saudi Arabia last week. The papers being released Tuesday show that the White House and other agencies are wrestling with "how best to address that foe," one official said.
In other developments:
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller took over as commander at Guantanamo in November 2002 after interrogators criticized his predecessor for being too solicitous for the detainees' welfare.
Between January and March 2003, 14 prisoners at Guantanamo tried to kill themselves, according to Pentagon figures. That's more than 40 percent of the 34 suicide attempts by 21 inmates since the prison was opened in January 2002.
Miller is now in charge of all military-run U.S. prisons in Iraq, a job he took after news broke of beatings and sexual humiliations last fall at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Miller had visited Abu Ghraib in August and September and recommended interrogation techniques that military lawyers said had to be modified to comply with the Geneva Conventions on treating prisoners of war.
Human rights groups say the suicide attempts at Guantanamo Bay may be evidence that conditions there amounted to torture.
The Bush administration calls the men "enemy combatants," similar to traditional prisoners of war but not subject to the guarantees of the Geneva Conventions against torture and other abuses. The administration contends their treatment nevertheless is humane.
"Our concern is that the totality of the conditions at Guantanamo starting with the prolonged detention without trial, combined with the frequent interrogation that may have included problematic methods may have contributed to an atmosphere that pushed people to attempt suicide," said Alistair Hodgett of the human rights group Amnesty International.
Miller and other military officials deny that.
"All detainees are treated humanely," Guantanamo military spokesman Maj. David S. Kolarik said in written response to questions from The Associated Press.
He said all prisoners are treated "in accordance with the principles" of the Geneva
Conventions "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity."
No Iraqi prisoners have killed themselves since the U.S. invasion, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for Miller in Baghdad. Nor do military records contain accounts of prisoner suicide attempts in Iraq, he said.
In internal memos, Bush administration lawyers have acknowledged repeatedly that "pushing someone to the brink of suicide" would be torture.