The CIA and the White House yesterday defended the practice of secretly transferring suspected terrorists to other countries, including some with poor human rights records, and reiterated that proper safeguards exist to ensure detainees are not tortured.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not answer repeated questions about whether President Bush was aware of -- or believed or discounted -- assertions made recently by freed detainees that they were tortured by other governments after they were transferred abroad by the CIA. But he said the United States has "an obligation not to render people to countries if we believe they're going to be tortured."
It is illegal under U.S. and international law to send someone to a country where torture is likely. To abide by the law, the CIA obtains a verbal assurance of humane treatment from the intelligence service of another country before it transfers suspected terrorists, a practice called rendition. Many intelligence and counterterrorism experts, however, say such assurances are ineffective and virtually impossible to monitor.
The issue of CIA renditions and interrogations came up several times yesterday morning as members of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned CIA Director Porter J. Goss, who was there to discuss worldwide threats.
Both Republicans and Democrats asked Goss why the CIA's inspector general was taking so long to review cases of alleged abuse, whether torture ever produced reliable information, and whether CIA interrogation rules are clear to operatives in the field and conform with U.S. law.
Goss said the policies and procedures are clear and always within the law. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) expressed skepticism: "Well, some of those policies at one time were to make one have the prisoner feel that they were drowning."
"You're getting into, again," said Goss, "an area of what I will call professional interrogation techniques, and I would like . . ."
"That's the area that I'm concerned about," McCain shot back, "because I'm not sure that the interrogators are fully aware of specific policies as to what they can and cannot do when interrogating a prisoner. And that's my point."
Goss said any uncertainty "is largely resolved," but in any case, "anything that would be happening would be erring on the side of caution."
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who sits on the committee and is also the chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, weighed in: "I have to tell you I am losing a little patience with what appears to me to be an almost pathological obsession with calling into question the actions of men and women who are on the front lines of the war on terror."
In his statements about worldwide threats, Goss agreed with McCain that "a very serious problem" exists with Islamic terrorists who could be among those who cross illegally into the United States from Mexico. But he urged that renewed attention be paid to threats "in our own back yard," in Latin America, that go beyond terrorism.
With presidential elections scheduled next year in eight South American and Central American countries, Goss said, "destabilization or a backslide away from democratic principles . . . would not be helpful to our interests and would be probably threatening to our security in the long run."
Goss described Bolivia and the Venezuela-Colombia border as "emerging troublesome areas that demand close coverage" and said, "We are talking about meddling in sovereign affairs of different countries by state actors."
He put Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez among the hemisphere players who "are very clearly causing mischief for us," noting his association with Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Goss, a former House member from Florida, acknowledged that warning about Latin America is unusual, but he said current intelligence coverage there is not sufficient. "We've phased out a lot of activities that we wish we hadn't at this point," he said.
Goss and Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned of China's closer economic ties with Iran and Venezuela, and its sales of military equipment to the latter. Goss added that China's modernization and expenditures on its military "are something that seemingly threaten our forces and our interests."
On the Middle East, Goss said that, despite repeated attempts to get cooperation from Syria on closing the border with Iraq, so far "we have not had the success I wish I could report."
As for Iran, Goss cited concerns that go beyond Tehran's refusal to give up its nuclear program and its lack of transparency concerning its ability to enrich uranium. "Iran has been meddling in the affairs of Iraq in the interests of Iran," he told the senators.
Goss and Jacoby said that the reform movement in Iran has receded. They predicted that a more conservative president will win the election in June and succeed President Mohammad Khatami.