Debate Erupts on Techniques Used by C.I.A

The disclosure of secret Justice Department legal opinions on interrogation on Thursday set off a bitter round of debate over the treatment of terrorism suspects in American custody and whether Congress has been adequately informed of legal policies.

 Democrats on Capitol Hill demanded to see the classified memorandums, disclosed Thursday by The New York Times, that gave the Central Intelligence Agency expansive approval in 2005 for harsh interrogation techniques.

Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote to the acting attorney general, Peter D. Keisler, asking for copies of all opinions on interrogation since 2004.

"I find it unfathomable that the committee tasked with oversight of the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program would be provided more information by The New York Times than by the Department of Justice," Mr. Rockefeller wrote.

The ranking Republican on the panel, Senator Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, said Thursday night in a statement that the committee had been briefed on the administration’s "legal justifications" for interrogation.

Mr. Bond said he understood that the administration did not want to turn over the opinions themselves because they had confidential legal advice.

Administration officials confirmed the existence of the classified opinions but said they did not condone torture. The White House press secretary, Dana Perino, said she could not discuss C.I.A. methods but added, "What I can tell you is that any procedures that they use are tough, safe, necessary and lawful."

One 2005 opinion gave the Justice Department’s most authoritative legal approval to the harshest agency techniques, including head slapping, exposure to cold and simulated drowning, even when used in combination.

The second opinion declared that under some circumstances, such techniques were not "cruel, inhuman or degrading," a category of treatment that Congress banned in December 2005.

Administration officials said Thursday that there was no contradiction between the still-secret rulings and an opinion made public by the Justice Department in December 2004 that declared torture "abhorrent" and appeared to retreat from the administration’s earlier assertion of broad presidential authority to conduct harsh interrogations.

At a briefing, Ms. Perino said that it was "quite a testament to this country" that six years after the Sept. 11 attacks "we are still having a debate" about treating prisoners, but that "we don’t torture them."

President Bush, she added, "has done everything within the corners of the law to make sure that we prevent another attack on this country."

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the 2005 opinions had "reinstated a secret regime by, in essence, reinterpreting the law in secret." Mr. Leahy said his panel had sought information on the opinions on interrogation for two years without success.

Mr. Leahy also said his panel would hold confirmation hearings on Oct. 17 on Michael B. Mukasey’s nomination as attorney general. Several senators said they would closely question Mr. Mukasey, a retired federal judge, at the hearing about his views on interrogation.

Mr. Leahy and Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also demanded that the administration turn over the 2005 opinions.

Mr. Conyers wrote a letter to Mr. Keisler saying, "The alleged content of the opinions and the fact that they have been kept secret from Congress are extremely troubling."

The letter, also signed by Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, asked the Justice Department to make available for a hearing Steven G. Bradbury, acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, who signed the opinions.

In an interview, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said that in light of the administration’s apparent retreat from its legal embrace of the harshest tactics in 2004, the 2005 opinions "are more than surprising."

"I think they’re shocking," Mr. Specter said.

He added members of Congress voted to ban "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" in December 2005 without knowing that the Justice Department had already decided that the C.I.A.’s methods did not violate that standard. "I think the administration had a duty to inform Congress about these opinions," Mr. Specter said.

Intelligence officials have said the agency has dropped some of its harshest practices, including the simulated drowning called waterboarding. But the 2005 memorandums show that the administration has secretly continued to maintain that their use would be lawful.

A senior administration official who insisted on anonymity said the opinion on the "combined effects" of different techniques was approved in May 2005.

The opinion that the methods were not cruel or inhuman was approved later in 2005, the official said. Officials have said both opinions remain in effect.

Both documents were written by the Office of Legal Counsel after Alberto R. Gonzales became attorney general. Mr. Gonzales’s arrival effectively ended a rebellion in the department in 2004 by lawyers who had found fault with the legal justifications for interrogation and surveillance.

In a statement, a spokesman for the department, Brian Roehrkasse, said he could not comment on classified legal advice, but said any department opinions were consistent with the administration’s "strong opposition to torture."

Mr. Roehrkasse also expressed the department’s support for Mr. Bradbury, whose nomination to be permanent head of the Legal Counsel office has been blocked by Senate Democrats since June 2005. Mr. Roehrkasse said Mr. Bradbury had "worked diligently to ensure that the authority of the office is employed in a careful and prudent manner."

[Source: By David Johnston and Scott Shane, NYT, Washington, Us, 04Oct07]

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