WASHINGTON – Facing pointed new questions about tough methods used by the administration in the interrogation of suspected terrorists, President Bush insisted Friday that “this government does not torture people.”

At the same time, administration officials are adamantly refusing to discuss certain tactics that reportedly have been allowed – such as head-slapping and water-boarding – in efforts to procure information from suspects detained in secret prisons.

After years of controversy over the conduct of U.S. authorities in the war against terror, including the abuse of inmates at the U.S.-run prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the Bush administration is suddenly facing a renewed onslaught of questions over secretive interrogation tactics, and the furor is now expected to play a major role in the confirmation hearings for Michael Mukasey, nominated to be attorney general.

Congress has forbidden torture, and the Justice Department, declaring torture “abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms,” spelled out in a December 2004 memorandum the tactics that would impermissibly inflict “severe physical or mental pain and suffering.”

Yet early in 2005, The New York Times reported this week, the department secretly authorized some of the CIA’s harshest techniques for interrogation at secret prisons overseas. Those techniques, the Times reported, included head-slapping and exposure to cold and simulated drownings, including using them in combination.

Congressional leaders now are demanding to see the memorandums that the Justice Department reportedly issued, with leaders calling approval of head-slapping and water-boarding news to them. But the White House insists it privately briefed members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on all its authorized tactics.

More broadly, human rights experts are now questioning the administration’s insistence that it does not torture.

“President Bush is saying one thing, but there seem to be other things happening around the world,” said Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond.

“The heart of the problem is that Congress has been kept out of the loop so long that it shouldn’t be surprising that it is questioning what the administration is doing,” Tobias said. “I think Congress has legitimate concern about seeing the information, seeing the opinions and reconciling them with what the White House is saying.”

The sensitivity of the issue can be measured in the White House’s response. Bush took time to make a statement in the Oval Office on Friday, but he fielded no questions.

“I have put this program in place for a reason, and that is to better protect the American people,” the president said. “And when we find somebody who may have information regarding … a potential attack on America, you bet we’re going to detain them, and you bet we’re going to question them.

“Secondly,” Bush said, “this government does not torture people. You know, we stick to U.S. law and our international obligations.”

Still, the White House has refused to publicly address any of the specific interrogation tactics reportedly permitted in the Justice Department’s 2005 opinions.

“I’m not going to get into specifics,” said Dana Perino, the White House press secretary. “I am not saying that reasonable people could not look at something and disagree. But the legal opinion of the United States is that we do not torture.”

Initially, the Justice Department described in an August 2002 memo what it considered impermissibly severe pain or suffering.

The agency defined “severe” as “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.” The Justice Department rescinded that opinion after an outcry. A Dec. 30, 2004, memo called torture “abhorrent,” and declared that “severe” pain is not limited to “excruciating or agonizing pain.”

But then in early 2005, the Times reported, the Justice Department secretly authorized head-slapping, water-boarding and other tactics and said that under some circumstances these would not be considered “cruel, inhuman or degrading” – a category of treatment that Congress banned in December 2005.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has demanded to see those opinions, calling it “unfathomable” that his committee “would be provided more information by the New York Times than by the Department of Justice.”

(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-05-07 1937EDT

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