CIA's practice of sending suspects overseas for handling raises pointed legal and moral issues.
As more details emerge from detainees sent by the United States to countries that allegedly engage in torture, the CIA is under growing pressure to account for some of its top-secret actions in the war on terror - especially its interrogation techniques.
The controversy is leading to a rare moral debate about the methods and effectiveness of some of the agency's most shadowy ways of extracting information.
Historically, the public has known relatively little about such back-room techniques. But because so many details have already surfaced - from the exposure of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses to more recent investigations into the use of torture at Guantánamo Bay and other sites - the CIA is under growing criticism from lawmakers and human rights groups to clarify and justify its interrogation policies.
The criticism is particularly acute over the practice of rendition - nabbing and transporting suspected terrorists to other countries, some of which are believed to employ brutal practices that would be illegal in the US to elicit information.
"We need to ask the question of how the [rendition] program was originally conceived and what it is now," says Karen Greenberg, director of the Center for Law and Security at New York University.
At the core of the controversy is whether the CIA has the authority to use other countries in interrogations, whether the practice violates international law, and whether information obtained in this way is credible anyway.
The practice was first authorized by President Reagan in 1986 to deal with terrorists who might have been responsible for the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, experts say. It was again put into use by the Clinton administration to transport terrorists and drug lords to the US or other countries for prosecution.
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