WASHINGTON Senate and House Democrats demanded Thursday to see two secret memos that reportedly authorize painful interrogation tactics against terror suspects despite the Bush administration's insistence that it has not violated U.S. anti-torture laws.
White House and Justice Department press officers said legal opinions written in 2005 did not reverse an administration policy issued in 2004 that publicly renounced torture as "abhorrent."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller sent a letter to the acting attorney general saying the administration's credibility is at risk if the documents are not turned over to Congress.
The memos are "critical to an appropriate assessment" of interrogation tactics approved by the White House and the Justice Department, Rockefeller wrote to Acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler. "Why should the public have confidence that the program is either legal or in the best interests of the United States?" the West Virginia Democrat asked.
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., promised a congressional inquiry into the two Justice Department legal opinions that reportedly explicitly authorized the use of painful and psychological tactics on terrorism suspects.
"Both the alleged content of these opinions and the fact that they have been kept secret from Congress are extremely troubling, especially in light of the department's 2004 withdrawal of an earlier opinion similarly approving such methods," Conyers, D-Mich., and fellow House Judiciary member Nadler wrote in a letter Thursday. Their letter to Keisler requested copies of the memos.
The two Democrats also asked that Steven Bradbury, the Justice Department's acting chief of legal counsel, "be made available for prompt committee hearings."
The memos were disclosed in Thursday's editions of The New York Times, which reported that the first 2005 legal opinion authorized the use of head slaps, freezing temperatures and simulated drownings, known as waterboarding, while interrogating terror suspects, and was issued shortly after then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took over the Justice Department.
That secret opinion, which explicitly allowed using the painful methods in combination, 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.
A second Justice opinion was issued later in 2005, just as Congress was working on an anti-torture bill. That opinion declared that none of the CIA's interrogation practices would violate the rules in the legislation banning "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of detainees, The Times said, citing interviews with unnamed current and former officials.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said neither of those memos overruled the December 2004 legal opinion that he said remains in effect.
"Neither Attorney General Gonzales nor anyone else within the department modified or withdrew that opinion," Roehrkasse said in a statement. "Accordingly, any advice that the department would have provided in this area would rely upon, and be fully consistent with, the legal standards articulated in the December 2004 memorandum."
"This country does not torture," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters. "It is a policy of the United States that we do not torture, and we do not."
Perino would not comment on whether the 2005 opinions authorized specific interrogation practices, such as head-slapping and simulated drowning. She initially said the first classified opinion was dated Feb. 5, 2005, but White House spokesman Tony Fratto corrected Perino's statement later Thursday to say the memo was dated months after February 2005. Another administration official later said it was dated May 2005.
The dispute may come down to how the Bush administration defines torture, or whether it allowed U.S. interrogators to interpret anti-torture laws beyond legal limits. CIA spokesman George Little said the agency sought guidance from the Bush administration and Congress to make sure its program to detain and interrogate terror suspects followed U.S. law.
"The program, which has taken account of changes in U.S. law and policy, has produced vital information that has helped our country disrupt terrorist plots and save innocent lives," Little said in a statement. "The agency has always sought a clear legal framework, conducting the program in strict accord with U.S. law, and protecting the officers who go face-to-face with ruthless terrorists."
Congress has prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terror suspects. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said several extreme interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, are specifically outlawed.
"As some may recall, there was at the time a debate over the way in which the administration was likely to interpret these prohibitions," McCain said in a statement. McCain added that he was "personally assured by administration officials that at least one of the techniques allegedly used in the past, waterboarding, was prohibited under the new law."
The American Civil Liberties Union called for an independent counsel to investigate the Justice Department's torture opinions, calling the memos "a cynical attempt to shield interrogators from criminal liability and to perpetuate the administration's unlawful interrogation practices."
The issue quickly hit the presidential campaign trail.
"The secret authorization of brutal interrogations is an outrageous betrayal of our core values, and a grave danger to our security," Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said in a statement.
The 2005 opinions approved by Gonzales remain in effect despite efforts by Congress and the courts to limit interrogation practices used by the government in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Gonzales resigned last month under withering criticism from congressional Democrats and a loss of support among members of his own party.
The authorizations came after the withdrawal of an earlier classified Justice opinion, issued in 2002, that had allowed certain aggressive interrogation practices so long as they stopped short of producing pain equivalent to experiencing organ failure or death. That controversial memo was withdrawn in June 2004.