WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is questioning whether the CIA's secret prison program — which he fears has become a black eye to the United States — should continue.
The review led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., comes as the Bush administration deliberates an executive order, called for by Congress, that will establish new guidelines for the CIA's system for detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists. It is the agency's most publicly controversial intelligence collection program.
Rockefeller says there is no doubt that intelligence from detainees has been valuable. Yet he says he wonders whether the CIA needed to create a system outside of long-standing FBI and military interrogation programs.
Rockefeller's spokeswoman, Wendy Morigi, said he has not been convinced that the CIA prisons produce better intelligence than the FBI and military systems.
"The real question is whether the administration's decision to pursue an alternate system (at the CIA) was the right approach," Rockefeller said in a statement Friday.
President Bush said he emptied the CIA's secret prisons in September and sent its last 14 high-value detainees to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But he left open the possibility that the program could be used again.
As chairman, Rockefeller has promised to conduct more vigorous oversight of the spy agencies than did his Republican predecessor. He is asking whether having a separate CIA detention and interrogation system is necessary and worth the toll on the U.S. image abroad.
"The widespread reports about secret prisons and torture, whether accurate or not, have damaged the United States' reputation around the world and hindered counterterrorism efforts with our allies," he said.
Human rights groups have argued for years that the CIA's detention and interrogation techniques amount to torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the only independent watchdog to interview the 14 detainees who were held by the CIA.
In a confidential report that has not been publicly distributed, the Red Cross said the 14 prisoners described highly abusive interrogation methods, especially when techniques such sleep deprivation and forced standing were used in combination. None of the detainees' accounts has been verified.
U.S. officials long have said the CIA program is for the most dangerous detainees and the CIA says its officers do not torture. "The agency's terrorist interrogation program has been conducted lawfully, with great care and close review, producing vital information that has helped disrupt plots and save lives," CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said.
As part of the Senate committee's work, members have visited the U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay; such fact-finding trips are expected to continue.
The committee held a private hearing last month on CIA renditions — the practice of grabbing suspected terrorists in one country and delivering them to another country. A committee hearing planned for April 10 will focus on CIA detention.
The committee also is reviewing classified documents on the CIA's secret prisons.
One committee aide said that for some time the administration would not brief the full House and Senate intelligence committees on the program's most sensitive aspects and limited those briefings to just a few members. More recently, the administration has begun giving more complete information to the full Senate committee. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office policy.
A former senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing internal administration policies, said the CIA had kept the committees informed as much as possible under the White House's rules.
The House committee, led by Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, has had private briefings with CIA Director Michael Hayden and expects more. Reyes wants to see the Justice Department's legal memos justifying the CIA program.
"The chairman is not going to approve any intelligence activity until he has an opportunity to review the legal basis for it," said a House committee aide who was authorized to speak to reporters only if not identified.
The Justice Department, the CIA and the White House have worked for five months on an executive order that will provide more clarity on the administration's interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, possibly changing what is allowed during CIA interrogations.
The document will prove important to members of Congress who are evaluating the CIA program. It also will be critical to CIA officers, who do not want to be involved in operations that could put them in legal jeopardy.
"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," Hayden wrote in a September memo to employees.
A spokesman for Bush's National Security Council, Gordon Johndroe, said government officials have been discussing the executive order, which will take several weeks to complete.
"This process required additional time as new officials, including the defense secretary, director of national intelligence and White House counsel, were brought into the deliberations," Johndroe said.
The CIA's detention practices raised concerns almost from the day that the agency began questioning people with suspected terrorist links. Early in the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, senior military officers took steps to ensure that military personnel were not in the room during CIA interrogations, a government official familiar with military and intelligence operations told The Associated Press last year.
Bush did not acknowledge the CIA's secret detention program until September, when he announced that the agency had just moved al-Qaida operational planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 13 other suspected terrorists to Guantanamo Bay.
"Terrorists in this program have painted a picture of al-Qaida's structure and financing, and communications and logistics," Bush said, as he made the case that the CIA's interrogation work was tough, lawful and invaluable.
Rockefeller said the goal must be to get intelligence in a legal, effective way — "in a manner that promotes the national security interests of the United States."