CIA's tactics become key election year issue

Published September 17, 2006

WASHINGTON - The CIA believed it was operating lawfully in detaining and interrogating 96 suspected terrorists at locations from Thailand to Europe, until the Supreme Court this summer struck down that legal foundation.

The CIA is now in the middle of election-year politics as Congress tries to write new definitions that could reshape the intelligence agency's program.

"At the end of the day, the director - any director - of the CIA must be confident that what he has asked an agency officer to do under this program is lawful," CIA director Michael Hayden wrote employees on Thursday.

President Bush was more blunt: "They don't want to be tried as war criminals," he said Friday.

The high court's ruling in June, in a case involving Salim Ahmed Hamdan, said the Geneva Conventions on the rights of wartime prisoners should apply to terror suspects in CIA custody.

That meant for the first time since the interrogation program was born in 2002, the Justice Department could not give the CIA a written opinion on whether its techniques still were legal.

Spy agencies rely on such opinions to justify activities that get little, if any, public scrutiny.

Bush and the CIA say the law needs to be changed to protect the interrogation program, which they call one of the most important ways to deter attacks against the United States.

"The Hamdan decision in effect calls a time-out in the war on terror," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The program's critics say a fix is needed to prevent further damage to the U.S. image abroad and to reduce risks to U.S. military personnel who may be caught by enemies.

"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," retired Gen. Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, wrote Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican is resisting Bush's call for more lenient rules on interrogations.

The CIA's practices raised questions almost from the day that the agency began questioning detainees suspected of terrorist links.

Early in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, senior military officers were so concerned about the CIA's practices that they took steps to ensure that military personnel were not in the room during CIA interrogations, the Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed source.

But Gary Berntsen, commander of a CIA team in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, said CIA personnel initially did not have time for interrogations - a term that implies the use of techniques to coerce information from prisoners.

Instead, he said, intelligence officers conducted cursory interviews of newly captured fighters to see if they had information they wanted to share.

"We were seizing one city after the next," Berntsen said. "There were hundreds of people" in custody.

Not long after the March 2002 capture of top al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah, the CIA's practices became more formal. Agency operatives knew Zubaydah had a wealth of information because of his close ties to al-Qaida's leadership, but he was not cooperative.

The CIA decided it would need to hold high-value terrorists such as Zubaydah for extended periods in an effort to extract information. They also began using some "enhanced interrogation techniques" with success.

In mid 2004, the CIA's inspector general completed a report on the treatment of detainees after the possible involvement of CIA personnel in the deaths of at least four prisoners. The review covered interrogation tactics.

Current and former U.S. officials say some techniques are well-known: exposing prisoners to cold, disorienting them or depriving them of sleep.

The Supreme Court's decision froze the interrogations and led the administration to turn over the last 14 prisoners in CIA custody to the military officials at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The next step is up to Congress. Lawmakers are struggling over how to write legislation creating rules for how to try suspected terrorists and how to specify the lengths that authorities can go in questioning these detainees.