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CIA sends terror suspects abroad for interrogation

White House says U.S. does not 'export torture'

President Bush toured CIA headquarters in Virginia on Thursday with Director Porter Goss.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
George W. Bush
Acts of terror

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The CIA has been allowed to secretly transfer terrorism suspects overseas for interrogation, a former U.S. official said Sunday, but a White House spokesman denied that the United States used the practice to "export torture."

The official, who asked not to be named because there are classified issues involved, emphasized that the process -- known as "rendition" -- is conducted with strict government oversight and with approval from the White House and the Department of Justice.

The practice had existed for years, but President Bush expanded it after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, The New York Times reported Sunday.

"This program of renditions is fully authorized, so the CIA is not doing anything illegal that has not been authorized by the president," the former official said. He said both the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees are entitled to know about it or have been briefed on it.

The Times, citing current and former government officials, reported Sunday that the program was aimed only at those suspected of knowing about terrorist operations.

Those officials said the CIA has gone to "great lengths" to ensure that prisoners were not tortured. But some of those seized and shipped to third countries have said they were drugged, beaten and electrocuted while in custody overseas, and human rights groups have questioned the legality of the practice.

White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett defended the Bush administration's antiterrorism measures Sunday, but did not specifically confirm or deny the Times report when asked on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."

Bartlett said that after the attacks, U.S. officials took "a hard look at our entire apparatus -- militarily, intelligence, diplomatic -- to see how we were going to fight and win the war on terror.

"Part of this is to make sure that we can deal with known terrorists, who may have information about live operations, and it's critical that we're able to detain them and have the information," Bartlett said.

"Having said that, at every step of the way, President Bush and his administration has made very clear that we abide by the laws of our land and the treaty obligations we have," Bartlett said. "We will not torture here in America, and we will not export torture. That is unacceptable to this president, and something that we will not tolerate."

The former U.S. official said the CIA is dealing "with very nasty people" in some cases -- and "in the tumultous world of counterterrorism," problems are reported to the CIA's inspector general. If that agency finds questions at all about the legality of any conduct, the report is sent to the Justice Department, which would decide whether to prosecute.

Former CIA agent Michael Scheuer told CBS' "60 Minutes" that the program began under the Clinton administration -- and he said everyone knew that terror suspects were being sent to countries that "don't have the same legal system we have."

"It's convenient in the sense that it allows American policymakers and American politicians to avoid making hard decisions," he said. "It's very convenient. It's finding someone else to do your dirty work."

Asked whether that makes the United States complicit in torture, Scheuer said, "You'll have to ask the lawyers."

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