WASHINGTON - Six years after the Bush administration embraced harsh physical tactics for interrogating terrorism suspects, and two years after it reportedly dropped the most extreme of those techniques, the taint of torture clings to American counterterrorism efforts.
The administration has a standard answer to queries about its interrogation practices: 1) We do not torture, and 2) we will not say what we do, for fear of tipping off future prisoners. In effect, officials want Al Qaeda to believe that the United States does torture, while convincing the rest of the world that it does not.
But that contradictory catechism is not holding up well under the battering that American interrogation policies have received from human rights organizations, European allies and increasingly skeptical members of Congress.
The administration does not acknowledge scaling back the Central Intelligence Agency's secret detention program, perhaps to avoid implying that earlier methods were immoral or illegal. President Bush has repeatedly defended what the administration calls "enhanced" interrogation methods, saying they have produced invaluable information on Al Qaeda. But the administration's strategy has exacted an extraordinary political cost.
The nomination of Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general, once expected to sail through the Senate, has run into trouble as a result of his equivocation about waterboarding, or simulated drowning. Mr. Mukasey has refused to characterize the technique as torture, which would put him at odds with secret Justice Department legal opinions and could put intelligence officers in legal jeopardy.
At a House hearing last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted that the United States had mishandled the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who was seized in New York in 2002 on suspicion of terrorism and shipped to Syria, where he was imprisoned and severely beaten.
But Ms. Rice refused to acknowledge the torture or to apologize to Mr. Arar, perhaps to avoid exposing to attack the policy of extraordinary rendition, in which the United States delivers suspects to other countries, including some that routinely use torture.
C.I.A. officers have been criminally charged in Italy and Germany in connection with rendition cases. The torture issue has complicated Americans' standing in criticizing other countries.
At a House hearing on the crackdown on dissent in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where protest leaders have reportedly endured waterboarding, Jeremy Woodrum, a director of the United States Campaign for Burma, said American conduct was thrown back at him, testifying: "People say, 'Why are you guys talking to us about this when you have the mess in your own backyard?' "
Even inside the government, there are tensions. At the C.I.A., the director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, has come under fire from Congress for ordering a review of the agency's own inspector general, whose aggressive investigations of secret detention programs have raised hackles.
The moral debate over torture has seeped deeply into popular culture, from the black comedy of "The Daily Show" and its "senior interrogation correspondent" to the new movie "Rendition," based loosely on Mr. Arar's case. Candidates for president have repeatedly faced questions and exchanged barbs on the proper limits of interrogation.
Meanwhile, key members of Congress are raising questions about the future of the C.I.A.'s detention operation. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in response to a question from The New York Times that it "has produced valuable intelligence, but the question is at what cost?"
Mr. Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, whose committee has recently heard classified testimony about the noncoercive interrogation methods of the F.B.I. and the military, said he was not sure the C.I.A's harsher approach was justified.
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"Unfortunately, the intelligence community has not yet made a convincing argument that a separate, secret program is indeed necessary," he said. "The committee is engaged in answering these fundamental questions and fully intends to take action on the future of this program."
Even as the administration has maintained in secret Justice Department legal opinions that its harshest methods are legal, it has quietly but steadily backed away from them in practice.
Since last year, military interrogators have been bound by the new Army Field Manual, which prohibits all physical coercion.
The C.I.A. stopped using waterboarding by the end of 2005, former agency officials have said. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, said in July that prisoners were also now "not exposed to heat and cold," another technique previously used at the C.I.A.'s secret jails.
But administration officials seem loath to let potential prisoners know they have softened their interrogations. In his July remarks, Mr. McConnell suggested that Qaeda operatives had talked in part "because they believe these techniques might involve torture." At the same time, "the United States does not engage in torture," he said. "The president has been very clear about that."
In a PBS interview with Charlie Rose last week, General Hayden, the C.I.A. director, complained about negative press coverage of the agency's interrogation practices. "What puzzles me is to why there seems to be this temptation, almost irresistible temptation, to take any story about us and move it into the darkest corner of the room," General Hayden said.
Yet, illustrating the administration's predicament, General Hayden did nothing to dispel the mystery about the agency's "enhanced" interrogation tactics.
"What is 'enhanced technique'?" Mr. Rose asked. "Is it something close to torture?"
The C.I.A. director said, "No," adding, "I'm not going to talk about any specific techniques."
Whether Congress will act remains uncertain. Congressional Democrats have cited interrogation policies in blocking the confirmations of John A. Rizzo as general counsel of the C.I.A. and Steven G. Bradbury, author of secret legal opinions on interrogation, as head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. Now Mr. Mukasey's confirmation hangs in the balance.
Both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees have held closed hearings on the program. The only public glimpse - unclassified testimony recently released from a Sept. 25 Senate hearing - was a series of fierce attacks by human rights advocates, legal experts and a veteran interrogator on the effectiveness and morality of harsh interrogation.
Most Republicans, for now, are offering the administration conditional support. Senator Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said that he was concerned about the international reputation of the United States and that Congress "should continue to look at what other methods are effective."
But Mr. Bond said conversations with C.I.A. interrogators had convinced him that some legal but tough tactics could work on recalcitrant suspects. "Coercion has opened the dialogue," he said.
© 2007 The New York Times