WASHINGTON – President Bush defended his administration's methods of detaining and questioning terrorism suspects on Friday, saying they are both successful and lawful.
"When we find somebody who may have information regarding a potential attack on America, you bet we're going to detain them, and you bet we're going to question them," he said during a hastily called appearance in the Oval Office. "The American people expect us to find out information, actionable intelligence so we can help protect them. That's our job."
Bush volunteered his thoughts on a report on two secret memos in 2005 that authorized extreme interrogation tactics against terror suspects. "This government does not torture people," the president said.
Meanwhile, the Democratic chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee demanded a copy of a third Justice Department memo justifying military interrogations of terror suspects held outside the United States.
In a letter to Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey, Sen. Carl Levin wrote that two years ago he requested — and was denied — the March 14, 2003, legal opinion. Levin asked if Mukasey would agree to release the opinion if the Senate confirms him as attorney general, and cited what he described as a history of the Justice Department stonewalling Congress.
"Such failures and the repeated refusal of DoJ to provide Congress with such documents has prevented the Congress from fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to conduct oversight," Levin wrote.
The two Justice Department legal opinions from 2005 were disclosed in Thursday's editions of The New York Times, which reported that the first of the opinions authorized the use of painful methods, such as head slaps, freezing temperatures and simulated drownings known as waterboarding, in combination.
That secret opinion came months after a December 2004 opinion in which the Justice Department publicly declared torture "abhorrent" and the administration seemed to back away from claiming authority for such practices, and after the withdrawal of a 2002 classified Justice opinion that had allowed certain aggressive interrogation practices so long as they stopped short of producing pain equivalent to experiencing organ failure or death.
The second Justice opinion was issued later in 2005, just as Congress was working on an anti-torture bill. The opinion declared that none of the CIA's interrogation practices would violate provisions in the legislation banning "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of detainees, The Times said, citing interviews with unnamed current and former officials.
Though both memos remain in effect, the White House insisted they represented no change from the 2004 policy.
"We stick to U.S. law and international obligations," Bush said, without taking questions after a brief picture-taking session.
Speaking emphatically, the president noted that "highly trained professionals" conduct any questioning. "And by the way," he said, "we have gotten information from these high-value detainees that have helped protect you."
"The American people expect their government to take action to protect them from further attack," Bush said. "And that's exactly what this government is doing. And that's exactly what we'll continue to do."
He also said that the techniques used by the United States "have been fully disclosed to appropriate members of the United States Congress" — an indirect slap at the torrent of criticism that has flowed from the Democratic-controlled Congress since the memos' disclosure.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said those briefed on Capitol Hill "are satisfied that the policy of the United States and the practices do not constitute torture." She refused to define, however, what would be considered torture, or off-limits, in interrogations.
"I just fundamentally disagree that that would be a good thing for national security," she said. "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. It's not appropriate."
But House and Senate Democrats disagree that there is sufficient clarity on the matter, and are demanding to see the memos.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-WVa., said in a statement Friday he is "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 said.
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., promised a congressional inquiry.
Another White House spokesman, meanwhile, criticized the leak of such information to the news media and questioned the motivations of those who do so.
"It's troubling," Tony Fratto said Friday. "I've had the awful responsibility to have to work with The New York Times and other news organizations on stories that involve the release of classified information. And I can tell you that every time I've dealt with any of these stories, I have felt that we have chipped away at the safety and security of America with the publication of this kind of information."