President Bush yesterday signed an executive order requiring the CIA to follow international conventions banning torture when it questions detainees in its secret interrogation program for top captured terrorists.
The order, which appears to set the stage for the CIA to resume the program, bans techniques that denigrate a religion or religious object, sexually indecent acts and anything outside "the bounds of human decency."
"It gives our officers the assurance that they may conduct their essential work in keeping with the laws of the United States," CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said in a memo to agency employees.
Mr. Bush was responding to last year's Supreme Court ruling and subsequent legislation from Congress that called on him to clear up the way detainees in the war on terror are treated.
The president declassified the existence of the program, which was reported last September, in the middle of the congressional campaigns. He called on Congress to pass legislation giving the program sound legal footing.
At the time, he announced the last detainees in the CIA program had been transferred to Defense Department custody, but said he reserved the right to reopen the program if necessary.
Fewer than 100 "hardened terrorists" have been part of the program, and fewer than half of those were subjected to "enhanced interrogation measures," Mr. Hayden said. But he noted that the information from those interrogations has stopped attacks and saved lives.
Watchdog groups welcomed the order.
"There's nothing in this that's a step backwards in terms of protections against torture and abuse, and there are aspects that are clear steps forward," said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
But he said the problem is how the Bush administration chooses to read the definitions and follow the order, and he added that its track record isn't very good.
"There's plenty in this executive order that would prohibit all torture and abuse, but the worry we have is the worry we have with this administration about lots of other things," Mr. Anders said. "Any word or phrase that could possibly survive a laugh test in being interpreted some other way, the administration seems willing to do that."
Senate intelligence committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, said he was told about the order yesterday morning by the CIA. He said he will have to see how the CIA implements the new order, and he promised to hold hearings to see what happens.
"The stakes are too high and the issue too important to provide any comment until the committee has been given the opportunity to fully evaluate the president's action," he said.
Plenty of questions remain.
The administration official designated to brief reporters about the order would not talk about most specific practices ruled in or out, and wouldn't even say what agencies other than the National Security Council were involved in vetting the order.
The official also would not say whether any techniques had to change because of the new order, saying telegraphing what techniques are or aren't used could give terrorists a chance to train against them.
The official declined to say whether the rules would exclude the practice of water boarding. That technique, decried by many critics, involves simulated drowning by wrapping the subject's face with cellophane and pouring water over him. The official did say the prohibition against extreme heat or cold would rule out induced hypothermia, which Mr. Anders at the ACLU said they believe was one of the more commonly used tactics.