WASHINGTON -- Murky policy on torture leaves spies guessing what's acceptableThe government has placed what appear to be irreconcilable demands on American spies. The most recent evidence came last week, when President Bush denounced torture while Vice President Dick Cheney worked behind the scenes to defeat a measure in Congress that would prohibit the CIA from "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of detainees.
The lack of clear guidance, particularly to CIA officers not accustomed to handling detainees, puts officers on the ground in an impossible position, in which they must guess what activities are allowable and hope for the best, former spies said.
Meanwhile, the State Department has opposed Cheney's campaign. And an internal CIA report, warning that some CIA-approved interrogation techniques might not be legal, came to light in news reports last week on the heels of revelations of a secret CIA prison network in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
The mixed messages further cloud the debate over how far the agency should go in pursuing terrorists, intelligence professionals said.
"It's a muddle at the moment," said Loch Johnson, an intelligence historian who has served in several advisory capacities to intelligence agencies over the years.
This week, the Senate is expected to approve a defense authorization bill that contains a proposal, sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, that would bar inhumane treatment of detainees by U.S. agencies.
The measure is part of a separate defense spending bill under negotiation with the House, and McCain has promised to attach his measure to other bills if these two attempts fail.
With overwhelming support in the Senate, which passed it 90-9, and considerable support from House Republicans, McCain's measure is given a reasonable chance of winning congressional approval, despite strong opposition from the Bush administration.
"We've got two wars going on: one a military one in Iraq, and then we've got a war for public opinion, for the hearts and minds of all the people in the world," McCain said yesterday on CBS' Face the Nation. "We've got to make sure that we don't torture people."
Current and former intelligence officials said the confusion over what is permissible has hurt morale and discouraged operatives from taking risks - the opposite of what is needed to infiltrate terrorist groups.
What is needed, former spies said, are explicit guidelines to govern the murky world of clandestine operations. That way, those responsible for capturing suspected terrorists know what is expected of them.
Some of that discussion about drawing the line between aggressive intelligence collection and unacceptable behavior should be public, they added.
Robert Baer, who spent more than two decades spying for the CIA, said the agency was never envisioned as a prison service and that its officers were not trained to be wardens and had no desire to be. However, four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it still is not clear how or where detainees should be held.
"You end up bringing down your institutions when you have political squabbles like this in Washington and ask your military and intelligence agencies to do things they can't do," Baer said.
Historically, the CIA has not been equipped to handle detentions, a senior intelligence official said. CIA officers "did not sign on with the agency to become a lead interrogator or prison warden," he said. As a result, smart, experienced officers know how to get out of such assignments and the jobs fall to those with the least experience.
Bush administration officials say a resolution Congress passed in the days after Sept. 11 granted the president the power to detain suspected terrorists. It authorized Bush to use "all necessary and appropriate force" to retaliate against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The problem is: Does that have any limits?" said former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith.
The country has been debating these issues since 2001, when the FBI began rounding up suspects in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The president extended his authority by giving the government the ability to declare and detain "enemy combatants" inside and outside the country. The CIA's secret prison network is an extension of these policies.
"It is inexcusable that it has been four years since 9/11 and we did not confront this issue earlier," said Roger Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism official. "The problem is, there was paralysis in the political leadership about what to do with these people."
One consequence of the fuzzy rules, current and former intelligence officials say, was that unrealistic demands have been made on intelligence officers. In many cases, they are asked to use traditional espionage to confront people willing to die for their cause.
"You can't go to someone who is going to give up their life and say, `I have a better deal for you,'" Baer said.