WASHINGTON -- President Bush signed an order yesterday that clears the way for the CIA to resume some of the harsh interrogation methods it has used against terrorism suspects, even while it prohibits techniques that had caused an international outcry, including sexual humiliation and denigration of religious symbols.
The executive order ends months of legal skirmishing within the government over how to comply with laws barring mistreatment of detainees and a Supreme Court ruling last year requiring the U.S. government to treat terrorism prisoners in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
In practical terms, the document places significant new limits on the CIA, even while making it clear that the agency will continue to operate under special rules that set it apart from the rest of the government. The order places no restriction on employing coercive methods -- such as sleep deprivation and the use of so-called "stress positions" -- that are expressly off limits for the military and domestic law enforcement agencies.
On another level, the order represents an attempt by the Bush administration to straddle two competing mandates by bringing the CIA program into line with court rulings and legislative requirements without disabling an operation that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have defended as one of the most valuable weapons in the war on terrorism.
The order does not specifically address one of the most controversial methods employed by the CIA: water boarding, a technique in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and doused with water to simulate the sensation of drowning. A separate document spelling out specific techniques remains classified.
Human rights groups said the order brings the United States closer to international standards on the treatment of prisoners, but still gives the CIA significant latitude to employ methods that other countries and organizations have condemned.
"It certainly was a positive thing to see express prohibitions on things like sexual humiliation," said Jumana Musa, advocacy director for Amnesty International in Washington. "But the places where [the document] is silent speak volumes."
In a statement issued to the CIA work force yesterday, agency director Michael V. Hayden said that because of the order, "we can focus on our vital work, confident that our mission and authorities are clearly defined."
The agency suspended its use of harsh methods three years ago as the Bush administration's legal justifications for them began to crumble and CIA operatives working in secret detention facilities overseas became worried that they might face lawsuits or even criminal prosecution for the techniques they were being told to use.
Bush administration officials involved in drafting the order said it was designed to preserve flexibility for the CIA and to avoid spelling out boundaries that might be studied by al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations.
In a telephone briefing with reporters, an administration official refused to elaborate on what the order will allow CIA interrogators to do. The official acknowledged that there is no provision for allowing the Red Cross to visit CIA facilities or allow prisoners to be in contact with their families.
The order prohibits acts deemed "beyond the bounds of human decency, such as sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation." It forbids "acts intended to denigrate the religion, religious practices, or religious objects of the individual," a provision that appears designed to address complaints that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba had mistreated prisoners' copies of the Quran.
It also requires that detainees "receive the basic necessities of life, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat and cold."
Critics said that the document is frustratingly vague.
The stuff they rule out is stuff they've always been willing to rule out," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
U.S. officials said the executive order was accompanied by a separate document prepared by the Justice Department that spells out the specific interrogation methods and procedures that the CIA will be allowed to use in the secret detention program. But officials said that document is classified.
"The White House is basically saying: `Trust us. Everything in that other document we're not showing you is legal,'" Malinowski said.
Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.