Washington Senate and House Democrats demanded Thursday to see two secret memos that reportedly authorize painful interrogation tactics against terror suspects - despite the Bush administration's insistence that it has not violated U.S. anti-torture laws.
White House and Justice Department press officers said legal opinions written in 2005 did not reverse an administration policy issued in 2004 that publicly renounced torture as "abhorrent."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller sent a letter to the acting attorney general saying the administration's credibility is at risk if the documents are not turned over to Congress.
The memos are "critical to an appropriate assessment" of interrogation tactics approved by the White House and the Justice Department, Rockefeller wrote to Acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler. "Why should the public have confidence that the program is either legal or in the best interests of the United States?" the West Virginia Democrat asked.
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., promised a congressional inquiry into the two Justice Department legal opinions that reportedly explicitly authorized the use of painful and psychological tactics on terrorism suspects.
"Both the alleged content of these opinions and the fact that they have been kept secret from Congress are extremely troubling, especially in light of the department's 2004 withdrawal of an earlier opinion similarly approving such methods," Conyers, D-Mich., and fellow House Judiciary member Nadler wrote in a letter Thursday. Their letter to Keisler requested copies of the memos.
The two Democrats also asked that Steven Bradbury, the Justice Department's acting chief of legal counsel, "be made available for prompt committee hearings."
The memos were disclosed in Thursday's editions of The New York Times, which reported that the first 2005 legal opinion authorized the use of head slaps, freezing temperatures and simulated drownings, known as waterboarding, while interrogating terror suspects, and was issued shortly after then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took over the Justice Department.
That secret opinion, which explicitly allowed using the painful methods in combination, came months after a December 2004 opinion in which the Justice Department publicly declared torture "abhorrent" and the administration seemed to back away from claiming authority for such practices.
A second Justice opinion was issued later in 2005, just as Congress was working on an anti-torture bill. That opinion declared that none of the CIA's interrogation practices would violate the rules in the legislation banning "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of detainees, The Times said, citing interviews with unnamed current and former officials.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said neither of those memos overruled the December 2004 legal opinion that he said remains in effect.
"Neither Attorney General Gonzales nor anyone else within the department modified or withdrew that opinion," Roehrkasse said in a statement. "Accordingly, any advice that the department would have provided in this area would rely upon, and be fully consistent with, the legal standards articulated in the December 2004 memorandum."
"This country does not torture," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters. "It is a policy of the United States that we do not torture, and we do not."