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Covert CIA Program Withstands New Furor

President Bush left many of GST's details to then-CIA Director George J. Tenet. Tenet's successor, Porter J. Goss, left, has sought to defend the program.
President Bush left many of GST's details to then-CIA Director George J. Tenet. Tenet's successor, Porter J. Goss, left, has sought to defend the program. (By Jason Reed -- Reuters)

The CIA has stuck with its overall approaches, defending and in some cases refining them. The agency is working to establish procedures in the event a prisoner dies in custody. One proposal circulating among mid-level officers calls for rushing in a CIA pathologist to perform an autopsy and then quickly burning the body, according to two sources.

In June, the CIA temporarily suspended its interrogation program after a controversy over the disclosure of an Aug. 1, 2002, memorandum from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that defined torture in an unconventional way. The White House withdrew and replaced the memo. But the hold on the CIA's interrogation activities was eventually removed, several intelligence officials said.

The authorized techniques include "waterboarding" and "water dousing," both meant to make prisoners think they are drowning; hard slapping; isolation; sleep deprivation; liquid diets; and stress positions -- often used, intelligence officials say, in combination to enhance the effect.

Behind the scenes, CIA Director Porter J. Goss -- until last year the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee -- has gathered ammunition to defend the program.

After a CIA inspector general's report in the spring of 2004 stated that some authorized interrogation techniques violated international law, Goss asked two national security experts to study the program's effectiveness.

Gardner Peckham, an adviser to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), concluded that the interrogation techniques had been effective, said an intelligence official familiar with the result. John J. Hamre, deputy defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, offered a more ambiguous conclusion. Both declined to comment.

The only apparent roadblock that could yet prompt significant change in the CIA's approach is a law passed this month prohibiting torture and cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody, including in CIA hands.

It is still unclear how the law, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), will be implemented. But two intelligence experts said the CIA will be required to draw up clear guidelines and to get all special interrogation techniques approved by a wider range of government lawyers who hold a more conventional interpretation of international treaty obligations.

"The executive branch will not pull back unless it has to," said a former Justice Department lawyer involved in the initial discussions on executive power. "Because if it pulls back unilaterally and another attack occurs, it will get blamed."

The Origins

The top-secret presidential finding Bush signed six days after the Sept. 11 attacks empowered the intelligence agencies in a way not seen since World War II, and it ordered them to create what would become the GST program.

Written findings are required by the National Security Act of 1947 before the CIA can undertake a covert action. A covert action may not violate the Constitution or any U.S. law. But such actions can, and often do, violate laws of the foreign countries in which they take place, said intelligence experts.

The CIA faced the day after the 2001 attacks with few al Qaeda informants, a tiny paramilitary division and no interrogators, much less a system for transporting terrorism suspects and keeping them hidden for interrogation.

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