The top US senator on intelligence issues accused the White House on Friday of playing “games” over its refusal to provide Congress with legal documents that authorise the use of controversial interrogation techniques.
Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic chairman of the intelligence committee, said the administration could not have it “both ways”. He was responding to President George W. Bush, who said information on interrogation techniques had been “fully disclosed” to “appropriate members” of Congress.
Congress has stepped up pressure on the Bush administration over its failure to provide members of the intelligence oversight committees with a set of legal opinions drafted by the justice department to authorise harsh interrogation techniques for use by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators.
Mr Rockefeller said: “The administration refused to disclose the programme to the full committee for five years, and they have refused to turn over key legal documents since day one.”
This week, The New York Times reported that Alberto Gonzales, the since-departed attorney-general, approved a legal determination by the justice department’s office of legal counsel that “waterboarding” – where water is poured over the covered head of a captive to simulate the effects of drowning – and other controversial techniques were legal.
The office of legal counsel was also responsible for authoring the infamous 2002 “torture memo”, which appeared to condone the use of torture on detainees captured in the “war on terror”.
The CIA is understood to have decided against using waterboarding, in spite of the legal opinion, because of its own concerns that interrogators could be prosecuted. But while the administration insists that interrogators do not use torture, the White House has repeatedly declined to say whether waterboarding is considered a permissible technique.
“This government does not torture people,” Mr Bush said on Friday. “We stick to US law and our international obligations.” He added that information obtained from “high-value detainees” had made the US safer.
The administration has also been on the back foot following allegations that the state department had not been aggressive enough in its oversight of private security companies that protect its diplomats in Iraq.
The state department is investigating allegations that employees of Blackwater, the North Carolina company, used excessive force by opening fire without provocation on civilians in an incident last month that killed at least 11 Iraqis.
The State Department on Friday announced that it would tighten the use of private security companies by requiring state department security personnel to travel with private security guards. It would also require the installation of cameras on convoys.
Sean McCormack, the state department spokesman, said the new system would initially apply only to the Baghdad area, where Blackwater operates, but that “we will take a look to see whether or not we need to do this countrywide”. He added that neither of the two other state department security contactors in Iraq, Triple Canopy and DynCorp, would be affected.