The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been carrying out a secret government program of transferring suspected terrorists to foreign countries for interrogation without case-by-case approval from the White House, State or Justice Departments, The New York Times reported on Sunday.
The unusually expansive authority for the CIA to operate independently was provided by the White House under a still-classified directive signed by US President George W. Bush within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the newspaper quoted unidentified current and former US government officials as saying.
The process, known as rendition, has been central in US government's efforts to disrupt terrorism, but has been bitterly criticized by human rights groups on grounds that the practice has violated the Bush administration's public pledge to provide safeguards against torture, according to the report.
US officials described the program as an alternative to the costly, manpower-intensive process of housing terror suspects in the United States or in American-run facilities in other countries.
They also said that most of the people subject to rendition were regarded by counter terrorism experts as less significant than people held under direct American control, including the estimated three dozen high-ranking operatives of al Qaeda who are confined at secret sites around the world.
Although US officials said that approach is consistent with American obligations under the Convention Against Torture, several former detainees have described being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques and brutal treatment during months spent in detention under the program in some foreign countries.
The CIA's inspector general was reviewing the rendition programs one of at least a half-dozen inquiries within the agency of possible misconduct involving the detention, interrogation and rendition of suspected terrorists, according to the report.
The Times report said US officials have declined to discuss specific cases, but did not dispute that there had been instances in which prisoners were mistreated.
Several current and former government officials said in interviews with the newspaper that they believed that, in practice, the administration's approach may have involved turning a blind eye to torture.