CIA chief defends rendition and detention policies

By Claudia Parsons

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Central Intelligence Agency director defended U.S. policies on interrogation and rendition of terrorist suspects to other countries on Friday, saying the program was blown out of proportion by critics.

Speaking in New York four days before the sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, CIA Director Michael Hayden said al Qaeda had regained strength and its leadership continued to plot a "high-impact" attack on the United States.

"Al Qaeda is focusing on targets that would produce mass casualties, dramatic destruction and significant economic aftershocks," Hayden said, quoting from an intelligence summary released in July. He spoke before the release of a new Osama bin Laden video on Friday.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who insists the United States does not use torture, has faced pressure over interrogation techniques used on suspected militants held at secret CIA prisons and other locations.

Critics have complained the CIA has mistreated prisoners and operated clandestine flights under a secret "rendition" program in which suspects were handed over to countries like Egypt and Syria, where critics say they could be tortured.

"In this fight, we've leveraged every inch of the space we've been given to operate," Hayden told an audience that included academics, lawyers and human rights activists at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But, he said, the programs were "carefully controlled and lawfully conducted" and far more limited than widely believed.

"Since it began ... in the spring of 2002, fewer than 100 people have been detained at CIA's facilities," Hayden said, adding that the number of renditions was even smaller, in the "mid-range two figures."

"These programs are targeted and selective. They were designed for only the most dangerous terrorists and those believed to have the most valuable information, such as knowledge of planned attacks," he said. "But they also have been the subject of wild speculation, both here and overseas."

Hayden said there was a strict policy of only handing over suspects under credible assurances that they would be treated according to international law. "We do not do it to circumvent any restrictions that we have on ourselves," he said.

Hayden said he was worried that politics appeared to be limiting the CIA's ability to do its work, and he criticized the media for publishing stories revealing details of CIA operating methods.