Taking to the Senate floor, the vice chairman of the intelligence committee chastised his colleagues yesterday for what he said was their failure to adequately monitor and evaluate the legality and effectiveness of the CIA's detention and interrogation practices.
The capture and handling of terrorism suspects must be conducted "within the bounds of our laws and our own moral framework," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). "Congress has largely ignored the issue," he said. "More disturbingly, the Senate intelligence committee . . . is sitting on the sidelines and effectively abdicating its oversight responsibility to media investigative reporters."
Rockefeller has been rebuffed by committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) in his call for a committee inquiry into allegations of detainee abuse and into the CIA's capturing of terrorism suspects and secretly delivering them to other governments, a practice known as rendition. This week, Rockefeller filed an amendment to the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill that would mandate an inquiry into such practices.
Roberts rose on the Senate floor to respond to Rockefeller's unusually candid discussion of intelligence practices and said he had filed his own amendment to counter Rockefeller's allegations. The committee, he said, had conducted "aggressive oversight of all aspects of the war on terrorism," including the CIA practices in question.
Another intelligence investigation is "currently unnecessary. I think it would be impractical . . . and damaging to the ongoing operations" and would hurt morale at intelligence agencies, Roberts said. He said some people had an "almost a pathological obsession with calling into question the actions" of the intelligence community.
The legality of the CIA's interrogation and rendition practices has been called into question by allegations of prisoner abuse involving CIA employees, and by assertions of some freed prisoners that they were tortured at foreign prisons after being transported there by the CIA. It is illegal, under U.S. and international law, to knowingly send someone to a country where it is likely that they will be tortured.
Rendition is a CIA operation in which a suspected terrorist is captured in a foreign country, usually by the foreign country's security service, and then, without a legal proceeding, secretly flown by the CIA to another country for detention and interrogation. The term derives from the notion that the CIA could render a fugitive to justice and it was first used in the mid-1990s to bring drug lords and terrorists to trial. After Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA has used renditions to detain and hide 100 to 150 suspected terrorists who are denied visits by officials from other U.S. agencies or the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The State Department did not learn of the CIA's extensive post-9/11 rendition practices until The Washington Post disclosed a Justice Department memo written to the CIA that defined torture in an unconventional way and was seen as giving a green light to harsh interrogations, officials said. The August 2002 document was subsequently withdrawn by the Justice Department, and a new legal interpretation with a more mainstream interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, was issued.
Since Sept. 11, the CIA has also set up an unknown number of secret detention facilities to hold about 30 better-known terrorists such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot, according to intelligence officials. The conditions of confinement and treatment are unknown.
Defense and intelligence officials have said in recent interviews that they expect these detainees to be held for life, without trial. Some senior CIA officials asked the White House late last year to find an alternative to long-term, secret CIA detentions. But the discussions were inconclusive.
Several senior national security officials argued that the CIA's secret detainees "had to come out into the real world," said one former senior U.S. official involved in the discussions. This official, and some defense officials interviewed recently on the matter, said keeping the CIA system shrouded in secrecy was unhealthy for the interrogators.
"The reasons why this should be regularized are not just to benefit the detainee," he said. "Because if someone dies in your custody, the temptation is to forget about it. You should not tempt yourself that way."
Unlike the Defense Department, which has conducted more than a dozen inquiries into detainee interrogation and detention, there has been no broad inquiry into the CIA's system. The CIA inspector general is probing about a half-dozen allegations of detainee abuse.