WASHINGTON - A secret CIA overseas detention programme revealed by President George W Bush last year is still active and has held at least one al Qaeda militant since then, a US official said.
The official confirmed the detention as the White House skirted around whether the agency had begun using secret sites again and insisted that the United States does not torture.
The New York Times reported the CIA was again holding prisoners at "black sites" overseas, and that the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had issued a secret opinion in 2005 that endorsed the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the CIA.
The detention programme, first revealed by The Washington Post in late 2005 and then acknowledged by Bush in September 2006, provoked an international outcry, with critics accusing the administration of secretly using torture to interrogate terrorism suspects.
Bush said all 14 high-level terrorism suspects held at that time had been transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the Defence Department said in April it had taken custody of a suspected al Qaeda leader who had spent months in CIA custody before his transfer.
A US counterterrorism official, asked about detentions under the programme, said: "In late 2006, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a high-ranking al Qaeda terrorist who planned and conducted attacks against US military forces, was captured and held in CIA custody. Earlier this year, this veteran jihadist was transferred to (Defence Department) custody at Guantanamo Bay."
An al Qaeda leader said in May that Iraqi had been arrested in Turkey and handed over to the Americans.
It was not known whether any more suspects were being held under the programme. Asked if the CIA currently has people in detention, agency spokesman George Little said, "We do not comment on this question as a matter of course."
"The agency's terrorist detention and interrogation programme has been conducted lawfully, with great care and close review," he said.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino would not comment, saying, "We haven't been in the habit of doing a press release every time we have a prisoner."
However, she said, "This country does not torture; it is the policy of the United States that we do not torture, and we do not," Perino said.
The New York Times said the Justice Department's secret 2005 memo differed sharply from a public legal opinion in December 2004 that declared torture "abhorrent."
The 2005 memo for the first time explicitly authorized painful physical and psychological tactics including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures, the newspaper said, citing unnamed officials.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the 2004 opinion "remains binding on the executive branch."
Bush ordered in July that CIA interrogators comply with international Geneva Conventions against torture.
Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey, chosen by Bush to replace Gonzales, is likely to be asked about the matter at his pending confirmation hearing, a Judiciary Committee spokeswoman said.
"The nominee must publicly promise to rescind the the broad torture framework unlawfully built up by this administration," the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents some of the Guantanamo detainees in court challenges, said in a statement.