WASHINGTON A secret CIA overseas detention program revealed by President George W. Bush last year remains active and has held at least one al Qaeda militant since then, a U.S. official said on Thursday.
The official confirmed the detention as the White House skirted the question of whether the agency had resumed holding prisoners at secret sites and insisted that the United States does not torture.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that the CIA was again holding prisoners at "black sites" overseas, and that the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had issued a secret opinion in 2005 that endorsed the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the CIA.
"The ongoing existence of the CIA program is extremely troubling," especially in light of the reported Justice Department opinion, said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of the advocacy group Human Rights First.
The detention and interrogation program, first revealed by The Washington Post in late 2005 and then acknowledged by Bush in September 2006, has provoked an international outcry, with critics accusing the administration of secretly using torture to interrogate terrorism suspects.
Bush said all 14 high-level terrorism suspects held at that time had been transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the Defense Department said in April it had taken custody of a suspected al Qaeda leader who had previously spent months in CIA hands.
A U.S. counterterrorism official, asked about detentions under the program, said: "In late 2006, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a high-ranking al Qaeda terrorist who planned and conducted attacks against U.S. military forces, was captured and held in CIA custody."
The official said the man, whose real name was given by the Defense Department as Nashwan Abd al-Razzaq Abd al-Baqi, was transferred to department control at Guantanamo Bay earlier this year.
"WE DO NOT TORTURE"
An al Qaeda leader said in May that Abd al-Baqi had been arrested in Turkey and handed over to the Americans.
Asked if the CIA currently holds anyone, agency spokesman George Little said, "We do not comment on this question as a matter of course."
"The agency's terrorist detention and interrogation program has been conducted lawfully, with great care and close review," he said.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino would not comment on the program, saying, "We haven't been in the habit of doing a press release every time we have a prisoner."
She also declined to comment on specific interrogation techniques but said, "The policy of the United States is not to torture."
The Times said the Justice Department's secret 2005 memo differed sharply from a public legal opinion in December 2004 that declared torture "abhorrent."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, in a letter on Thursday to the Justice Department requested the legal opinions cited in the newspaper article. Rockefeller said he had repeatedly asked for the classified opinions and the Justice Department had never provided a formal response.
House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, wrote separately to the acting attorney requesting the documents.
Citing unnamed officials, the Times said the 2005 memo for the first time explicitly authorized painful physical and psychological tactics including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the 2004 opinion "remains binding on the executive branch" but that he could not comment on any later, nonpublic "legal advice."
Bush ordered in July that CIA interrogators comply with international Geneva Conventions against torture.
Massimino said the order and the administration's legal opinions appear to leave much room for harsh interrogations.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, James Vicini and Thomas Ferraro)