WASHINGTON (AFP) — President George W. Bush insisted Friday the United States does not use torture to interrogate suspects, despite a weight of testimony and a renewed debate about the methods used in the "war on terror."
"This government does not torture people. We stick to US law and our international obligations," Bush said.
And he defended his "war on terror" launched in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks as well as the secret, controversial policy of detaining and interrogating suspects.
"I have put this program in place for a reason and that is to better protect the American people and when we find somebody who may have information regarding a potential attack on America, you bet we're gonna detain him and you bet we're gonna question him," he added.
The New York Times on Thursday alleged that since 2005 a US Justice Department document has authorized and justified the use of violent techniques in interrogations of "war on terror" suspects.
The legal department document was circulated in 2005, the same year Congress adopted a law banning cruel inhumane and degrading treatment, the Times said.
"The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures," the Times reported.
Human rights groups and Democratic Party lawmakers are now calling for the documents to be handed over to Congress for investigation.
In 2004, the Bush administration already had to release a first memo, drawn up two years earlier, which stipulated that no interrogation techniques were off-limits provided they did not trigger extreme physical pain.
Although the US administration has not denied the existence of the new documents, it is refusing to reveal their contents, insisting instead on the need to use alternative techniques to interrogate terror suspects.
"The American people expect their government to take action to protect them from further attacks and that's exactly what this government is doing and that's exactly what we will continue to do," Bush said.
He argued that highly trained professionals were employed to question "these extremists and the terrorists."
"We have got professionals who have trained in this kind of work to get information that will protect the American people."
White House Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend told CNN Thursday that the program had involved a team of fewer than 100 interrogators.
"We start with the least harsh measures first," Townsend told CNN television. "It stops ... if someone becomes cooperative."
But witness statements from former prisoners held in secret CIA jails or in the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have all testified to the use of systematic, and at times unchecked, of alternative interrogation techniques.
Former detainees, most of whom have been released without charge after several years in detention, have told of being held for months in solitary confinement.
They complained of being denied sleep, barred from seeing daylight, left naked in tiny, suffocating or freezing cells, forced to stand for hours in painful positions or being subjected to the onslaught of loud music.
Many of these accounts have been set down in official documents, such as the interrogation of Saudi prisoner Mohammed Al-Qahtani, who in a detailed 83-page testimony sets out almost minute-by-minute his incarceration in Guantanamo Bay from November 2002 to January 2003.
The FBI also released earlier this year some emails dating from 2004 sent by agents returning from missions to Guantanamo in which they denounced the mistreatment which they witnessed.
They talked about detainees being forcibly shaven, handcuffed to the ground for more than 24 hours, or even parade before savage dogs.
But Townsend said the White House was "baffled" by suggestions that if the US government did not employ harsh interrogation tactics, Al-Qaeda would treat captured Americans better.
And she suggested the harsh interrogation techniques had support and understanding of the American public.
"If Americans are killed because we failed to do the hard things, the American people would have the absolute right to ask us why," Townsend said.
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