"The White House confirmed the existence of two secret memos, first reported in The New York Times, that appear to authorize the Central Intelligence Agency the ability to use its most extreme interrogation techniques, including simulated drowning known as "water-boarding."
But it said the memos did not circumvent a U.S. law prohibiting "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of suspects or an official 2004 policy that declared torture "abhorrent."
Questions about harsh interrogation techniques have become a hallmark of the Bush administration and most of those questions continue to swirl around former attorney general Alberto Gonzales who, the reports said, approved the legal opinions to bring policy more in line with the wishes of U.S. President George W. Bush.
Gonzales was driven from office last month amid charges he had politicized the justice department and compromised its independence in his zeal to accommodate his mentor, Bush.
The man nominated to succeed him, Michael Mukasey, faces a Senate confirmation hearing later this month and the question of torture policy seems certain to be raised at those hearings.
"The policy of the United States is not to torture," said White House spokesperson Dana Perino.
"The president has not authorized it, he will not authorize it. But he had done everything within the corners of the law to make sure that we prevent another attack on this country, which is what we have done in this administration."
Democrats in the House of Representatives demanded the two memos be released and promised to probe administration interrogation policy.
They said they would call Steven Bradbury, the acting chief of legal counsel at the U.S. Justice Department, identified by the Times as the author of the memos.
The revelations immediately became fodder in the Democratic presidential race.
Illinois Senator Barack Obama called the revelations an "outrageous betrayal" of this country's core values.
"Torture is how you create enemies, not how you defeat them," he said in a statement.
"Torture is how you get bad information, not good intelligence. Torture is how you set back America's standing in the world, not how you strengthen it."
Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd said the law made it "crystal clear" that torture was illegal.
"It is `abhorrent' that the Bush administration would publicly disavow torture, while its office of legal counsel is secretly interpreting settled law to reach the opposite conclusion," Dodd said.
John McCain, the Arizona senator and Republican presidential hopeful who is a former prisoner of war, said water-boarding is specifically outlawed under the 2005 law. He was instrumental in the passage of that law, and his amendment prohibited the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
McCain has stood firm against an administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, which wanted unfettered presidential powers to approve harsh interrogation.
Human-rights advocates said Congress must use the upcoming confirmation hearings to put an end to any back-door torture.
"Congress should be clear - it will not confirm another attorney general who advises the president that it is okay to break the law," said Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many of the more than 300 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said its clients were being tortured even as the Bush administration was publicly denouncing the practice.
"Torture is illegal, immoral, and it doesn't work. Detainee torture policies that produce faulty intelligence and exaggerated confessions result in innocent men being locked up," said Vincent Warren of the rights centre.
The Reuters news agency, citing an unnamed U.S. counterterrorism official, said a high-ranking Al Qaeda terrorist known as Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi had been held in a secret site in late 2006.
He has since been transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Bush acknowledged the secret detention sites in September 2006, when he transferred 14 detainees from the secret prisons to Guantanamo Bay.
Their existence, first revealed in 2005 by The Washington Post, sparked an international outcry, with some European officials charging the United States was illegally torturing people on their soil.
© 2007 The Toronto Star