WASHINGTON — President Bush signed an executive order Friday barring the CIA from using torture, acts of violence and degrading treatment in the interrogation and detention of terrorism suspects, but human rights experts questioned its scope.
The order "interprets the meaning and application" to the CIA program of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which set international standards for the treatment of detainees. The CIA program was created to obtain information from "captured al Qaida terrorists who have information on attack plans or the whereabouts of the group's senior leaders," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said in a written statement.
While Bush's order broadly outlines what the CIA can and cannot do to prisoners, and sets standards for what the agency must provide in terms of food and shelter for detainees, it says nothing about specific controversial interrogation techniques.
Some experts in human-rights law said Bush's order contains "loopholes" that would allow the CIA to continue using aggressive interrogation techniques that others would consider torture.
"Let's not forget that the administration's theory of executive authority is very broad. They reserve the right to interpret laws in ways no one agrees with in emergency situations," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit activist group.
The Bush administration received heavy criticism globally over CIA interrogators using "water-boarding," which simulates drowning, and for allowing the CIA to operate secret prisons in Europe.
Bush's order prohibits "acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation, and cruel and inhuman treatment." It also prohibits "willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse done for the purpose of humiliating or degrading the individual in a manner so serious that any reasonable person ... would deem the acts beyond the bounds of human decency," according to Snow's statement.
In addition, the order forbids the degradation or humiliation of a prisoner's religious beliefs, practices or personal objects
A senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity declined to say what specific procedures were permitted or prohibited under the order.
"I think the president has made it clear from the beginning of the debate here that it is really impossible for us . . . to publicize to the enemy what practices may be on the table, what practices may be off the table, that that will only enable al Qaida to train against those that are on or off," he said.
The order is the result of a law called the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which Bush signed last October. The Supreme Court had ruled in June 2006 that trying detainees in military tribunals violated U.S. and international law.
At Bush's urging, Congress changed the U.S. law, authorized military trials for terrorism suspects and allowed the CIA to conduct aggressive interrogation methods, but left those methods largely undefined. The executive order is an effort to better define what practices are legal so that the CIA will have clear standards to guide its behavior, according to Snow.
In an e-mail message to CIA employees, CIA Director Michael Hayden insisted that the secret detention and interrogation program had always operated "in strict accord with American law."
"But the Supreme Court's decision changed the legal landscape in which we operated. So it was incumbent upon the agency — and upon me personally — to seek guarantees that any actions the CIA might take in the future regarding detainees would be, as before, on a completely sound legal foundation," Hayden said.
Hayden said that fewer than 100 detainees had passed through the program over the past five years and that "just a fraction" had been subjected to what he called "enhanced interrogation measures."
"Our careful, professional questioning of those men has produced thousands of intelligence reports, revealed priceless insights on al Qaida's operations and organization, foiled plots and saved innocent lives," Hayden continued. "Simply put, the information developed by our program has been irreplaceable."
Some military and intelligence officials dispute that harsh interrogations have produced useful intelligence, contending that detainees will say whatever interrogators want to hear to stop their suffering. Moreover, they worry that U.S. military and intelligence officers will be subject to the same procedures if captured.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement, saying, "We now need to determine what the executive order really means and how it will translate into actual conduct by the CIA."
Three leading Republican senators who helped draft the new law last year also issued a statement saying they needed to know more detail about Bush's order before commenting.
"The executive order touches on very complex areas of law, and we don't want to rush to judgment," said Sens. John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Some civil-liberties experts say Bush's order may not prevent abuses.
"For example, it prohibits willful and outrageous acts of abuse, but only does so where the purpose is to humiliate and degrade an individual. But if an interrogator says these techniques, whether it's water-boarding or stress techniques, are done to elicit information, but not humiliate a detainee, they could argue that that would not run afoul of the executive order," said Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer with New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, which has represented detainees held by the United States.
"The same thing goes for acts to denigrate someone's religion. If you took away someone's Quran not to denigrate, but as an interrogation technique to gain information — which they've done in the past — they could argue it was allowed under the order," he said.
Sifton of Human Rights Watch said that the CIA program under Bush's order remains in violation of international law.
"Put torture to the side for a second. The CIA detention program, even if no mistreatment is occurring, is still illegal under international law because it allows incommunicado, indefinite detention. That is enforced disappearance. That exists entirely outside the rule of law," he said.
CIA INTERROGATION METHODS
According to human-rights experts, the CIA's so-called enhanced interrogation measures have included: