Members of Congress are reacting to a newspaper report that the CIA has been running a network of secret prisons since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to hold and interrogate terrorist suspects. There was criticism from congressional Democrats.
In its reporting on what it described as a covert prison system run by the CIA, the Washington Post newspaper said funding for the secret sites was provided through the regular intelligence budget approved by Congress each year.
That budget has been estimated at about $40 billion, but the exact figure is not known because it is classified.
But for lawmakers responsible for funding the U.S. intelligence system, and who approved legislation to reorganize that system after months of tense debate, the Washington Post report is certain to cause more anxiety.
Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer Wednesday described the newspaper report as startling, adding she intends to inquire with members of the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee if they knew about the details mentioned in the newspaper article.
On the floor of the House of Representatives, the Washington Post report brought this comment from (Democratic) Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. "This is not what America stands for. This is more like Chile under [former dictator Augusto] Pinochet, or Argentina under the [former] junta," he said.
The Washington Post report also comes at a time when debate is raging over U.S. military operations in Iraq, the CIA leak case in which an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney was indicted, and the issue of treatment of prisoners and detainees.
The Senate version of a defense spending bill includes an amendment, approved by a vote of 90 to 9 last month, to ban the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of any detainee in U.S. custody.
However, the Bush administration, with Vice President Dick Cheney taking the lead, says such provision, sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain, would harm counter-terrorism efforts, and proposed that employees of the CIA should be exempted.
In the House, Congressman Ed Markey is proposing to prohibit the practice of extraordinary rendition under which terrorist suspects have been transported to other countries for interrogation.
Asked about the Washington Post report Wednesday, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan declined to discuss specific intelligence activities, adding only that President Bush has an important responsibility to protect the American people.
National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley, had this comment when asked about the newspaper report during a briefing on President Bush's upcoming trip to South America:
"The fact that they are secret, assuming there are such sites, does not mean that, simply because something is, you know when some people say that the test of your principles are what you do when no one is looking. And the president has insisted that whether it is in the public or is in the private, the same principles will apply and the same principles will be respected, and to the extent that people do not measure up to those principles, there will be accountability and responsibility," he said.
The Washington Post report also comes as congressional Democrats step up pressure on Republicans on the issue of pre-Iraq war intelligence and the CIA leak case. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, wrote to the president Wednesday criticizing what they call categorically false statements by presidential spokesman Scott McClellan.
On Tuesday, Senator Reid used a special rule to shut down the Senate to underscore dissatisfaction with what he calls foot-dragging by Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Republicans responded angrily, calling the move a stunt by Democrats, but agreed to issue a report later this month on the status of the Intelligence Committee probe of intelligence used to justify the Iraq war.