President Bush signed an order Friday that clears the way for the CIA to resume some of the harsh interrogation methods it has used against terrorism suspects, but the order prohibits techniques that had caused an international outcry, including sexual humiliation and the denigration of religious symbols.
The executive order ends months of legal skirmishing in the government over how to comply with laws barring mistreatment of detainees and a Supreme Court ruling last year that the government was required to treat terrorism prisoners in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
In practical terms, the document places significant new limits on the CIA while making it clear that the agency will continue to operate under special rules that set it apart from the rest of the government.
The order places no restriction on employing coercive methods -- such as sleep deprivation and the use of so-called stress positions -- that are expressly off-limits for the military and domestic law enforcement agencies.
On another level, the order represents an attempt by the Bush administration to straddle two competing mandates by bringing the CIA program into line with court rulings and legislative requirements without disabling an operation that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have defended as one of the most valuable weapons in the war on terrorism.
The order does not specifically address one of the most controversial methods employed by the CIA: water-boarding, a technique in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and doused with water to simulate the sensation of drowning.
A separate document spelling out specific techniques remains classified.
Human rights groups said the order brought the United States closer to international standards on the treatment of prisoners but still gave the CIA significant latitude to employ methods that other countries and organizations had condemned.
"It certainly was a positive thing to see express prohibitions on things like sexual humiliation," said Jumana Musa, advocacy director for Amnesty International in Washington. "But the places where [the document] is silent speak volumes."
In a statement issued to the CIA workforce Friday, agency Director Michael V. Hayden said that because of the order, "we can focus on our vital work, confident that our mission and authorities are clearly defined."
The agency says it suspended its use of harsh methods three years ago, as the Bush administration's legal justifications for them began to crumble and CIA operatives working in secret detention facilities abroad became worried that they might face lawsuits or even criminal prosecution for the techniques they were being told to use.
Bush administration officials involved in drafting the order said it was designed to preserve flexibility for the CIA and to avoid spelling out boundaries that might be studied by Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.
In a telephone briefing with reporters, an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing the internal development of the policy, refused to elaborate on what the order would allow CIA interrogators to do, saying: "That will only enable Al Qaeda to train against those [methods] they know are on or off."
The official emphasized that the order contained "red lines which I think we can all agree are beyond the pale," but acknowledged that there were no provisions for allowing the Red Cross to visit CIA facilities or for allowing prisoners to be in contact with their families.
The order prohibits acts deemed "beyond the bounds of human decency, such as sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation."
It also forbids "acts intended to denigrate the religion, religious practices or religious objects of the individual," a provision that appears designed to address complaints that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba had mistreated prisoners' copies of the Koran.
And it requires that detainees "receive the basic necessities of life, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and essential medical care."
Asked what might constitute extreme heat or cold, the administration official said, "We're not talking about forcibly induced hypothermia or any use of extreme temperatures as a practice in a program like this."
The provision requiring "essential medical care" might have applied to Abu Zubaydah, an alleged Al Qaeda operative who reportedly was denied pain medication after he was badly injured in a shootout during his capture in Pakistan in 2002.
Former U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged that water-boarding was used on Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed after he was taken into custody in Pakistan in 2003. But officials have said the method was abandoned years ago.
Critics called Bush's order frustratingly vague and said its most specific language addressed abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib and other military facilities that were never part of the CIA's interrogation program.
"The stuff they rule out is stuff they've always been willing to rule out," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
U.S. officials said the executive order was accompanied by a separate document prepared by the Justice Department that spelled out the specific interrogation methods and procedures that the CIA would be allowed to use in the secret detention program. That document is classified and will not be released to the public, officials said.
"The White House is basically saying: 'Trust us. Everything in that other document we're not showing you is legal,' " Malinowski said. "But the people in charge of interpreting this document don't have a particularly good track record of reasonable legal analysis."
The executive order is designed to bring the CIA program into compliance with the Supreme Court ruling last year in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, a case brought against the government by a detainee.
In Hamdan, the court said that even if detainees did not deserve full status as prisoners of war, they still must be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention's Common Article 3, which prohibits, among other things, "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."
The executive order released Friday represents the Bush administration's effort to spell out what the CIA must do to comply with Common Article 3.
The Bush administration previously had contended that terrorism suspects were unlawful combatants and did not warrant the protections of the Geneva Convention.
In the wake of the Hamdan ruling, Bush declared that all of the prisoners in CIA custody had been transferred to the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The agency has since taken other prisoners into custody, including alleged Al Qaeda operative Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, who was transferred to Guantanamo in April. U.S. officials declined to say whether other prisoners were being held by the CIA now.
In his statement Friday, Hayden emphasized that the CIA program "always operated in strict accord with American law," that "fewer than 100 hardened terrorists" had been held in the program, and that "well under half" were ever subjected to "enhanced" interrogation methods.
Congress has also sought to bring the CIA program under greater scrutiny. The Senate Intelligence Committee passed a measure this year that questioned whether a CIA detention program that operated under different rules than those applicable to military and U.S. law enforcement was "necessary, lawful and in the best interests of the United States."
Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said in a statement Friday that the committee would evaluate how Bush's order "will translate into actual conduct by the CIA" and would seek information from the Justice Department on the legal analysis underpinning the order.