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Bush backs interrogation of suspects

Says tactics used do not violate US law

WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday vigorously defended the government's efforts to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects, and he clashed with Democratic lawmakers over whether he has properly disclosed information about the classified program.

Bush used a brief photo opportunity in the Oval Office to renew his assertions that the United States "does not torture people" and sticks to US law and its international obligations. The president's comments followed the disclosure by The New York Times of secret Justice Department memos authorizing harsh CIA interrogation techniques, such as head slapping, frigid temperatures, and simulated drowning. The memos said that such tactics do not violate US or international law.

"The techniques that we use have been fully disclosed to appropriate members of the United States Congress," Bush told reporters. "The American people expect their government to take action to protect them from further attack. And that's exactly what this government is doing, and that's exactly what we'll continue to do."

Michael Hayden, CIA director, responding to the Times article in a memo to agency employees yesterday, disputed the suggestion that the Justice Department opinion had opened the door to harsher interrogation practices. He described the CIA's interrogation program as "small, carefully run, and highly productive."

"Fewer than 100 hardened terrorists have gone through the program since it began in 2002, and, of those, less than a third have required any special methods of questioning," Hayden wrote. A copy of the memo was obtained by The Washington Post.

The agency took custody only of terrorism suspects who were believed to have potential information about future attacks or inside knowledge of Al Qaeda's inner workings, and agency officials stayed well within US and international guidelines in their interrogation practices, Hayden said.

"We do not torture," he said. "The American people expect us to meet threats to their safety and security, but to do so in keeping with the laws of our nation."

Bush's statement that Congress has been briefed on the interrogation tactics drew a swift and angry reaction from Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.

"The administration can't have it both ways," Rockefeller said. "I'm tired of these games. They can't say that Congress has been fully briefed while refusing to turn over key documents used to justify the legality of the program."

Rockefeller sent a letter Thursday to acting Attorney General Peter Keisler demanding copies of all Justice Department opinions analyzing the legality of the CIA's interrogation program.

Another Senate leader, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, demanded a copy of a separate Justice Department memo, a 2003 document offering a legal justification for the military interrogation of unlawful combatants outside the United States.

The Bush administration has refused to turn over the documents, contending that its disclosure would give terrorist groups too much information about US interrogation tactics. One exception came in December 2004, when the Justice Department released a memo decrying torture as "abhorrent" and defining it as acts which "inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering."

White House press secretary Dana Perino would not say how the administration defines torture, beyond the broad, dense 2004 Justice opinion. "I think the American people recognize that there are needs that the federal government has to keep certain information private in order to help their national security. . . . We cannot provide more information about techniques," she said.

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