WASHINGTON — CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said Thursday that he had banned the agency's use of contract employees to interrogate prisoners or provide security at detention facilities, ending a practice that had drawn frequent criticism from human rights groups and key members of Congress.
Panetta also spelled out new obligations for officers to safeguard the well-being of detainees when working with U.S. partners in Pakistan and other countries that frequently capture terrorism suspects with CIA help. The rules require agency employees to report abuses even if they take place "in the custody of an American partner."
The new policies come amid fresh disclosures about the CIA's harsh treatment of detainees in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A previously secret Red Cross report based on interviews with prisoners who had been in CIA custody concluded that the agency's methods "constituted torture."
President Obama banned the CIA's use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques during his first week in office, and the White House has continued to take high-profile steps to distance itself from the practices adopted by the Bush administration.
Panetta outlined the latest measures in a note distributed to the CIA's workforce, as well as in a letter to congressional intelligence committees.
A copy of the memo to CIA workers, which also was given to reporters, cited a desire to address ongoing media and congressional scrutiny of the agency's interrogation activities.
The CIA's pursuit of extremists "continues undiminished," Panetta said. But CIA officers "do not tolerate, and will continue to promptly report, any inappropriate behavior or allegations of abuse."
Under the new directive, Panetta said that "no CIA contractors will conduct interrogations" and that he had ordered the agency to sever its contracts with companies that provided security at secret CIA facilities.
Agency officials declined to elaborate, but Panetta said that the contract decision would save the CIA as much as $4 million.
Panetta said that the agency had not had a prisoner in custody since he became director two months ago. The CIA still has the authority to detain terrorism suspects temporarily, and question them, before transferring them to the U.S. military or the custody of another country.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a vocal critic of the agency's use of contractors in interrogations, praised the steps as necessary "to fully comply with legal requirements and uphold the values we hold dear."
Human rights groups have also frequently expressed concern.
"The worry has been that [contractors] would be less professional and less accountable" than full-time government employees, said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Malinowski said, the CIA bypassed the advice of FBI and military interrogators and turned to contractors "whose approach would be consistent with the Bush administration's theory that you have to go to the dark side to fight the dark side."
Agency officials have maintained that the CIA turned to contractors because the agency didn't have its own roster of skilled interrogators, and that contractors were required to abide by the same rules as agency employees.
But one contract interrogator, David A. Passaro, was convicted of beating an Afghan detainee who later died. Passaro was sentenced in 2007 to eight years in prison.
Panetta said that if the CIA captured new prisoners it would use only "a dialogue-style of questioning" consistent with the methods approved in the U.S. Army Field Manual on Interrogation. He also said that the agency had developed a plan to dismantle the secret prison facilities, known as "black sites," where the detainees were held.
Seven years after the CIA set up the secret sites, new details are still emerging on the treatment of agency prisoners. The Red Cross report accused the agency of inflicting "severe physical and mental pain and suffering" on prisoners by subjecting them to a battery of methods including beatings, prolonged periods of nudity and the simulated drowning method known as waterboarding.
The document includes detailed accounts from Al Qaeda prisoners who were interviewed by Red Cross workers after they were transferred to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Among them was Abu Zubaydah, who said of his waterboarding that "I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then, I still lose control of my urine when under stress."
The Red Cross report was completed in 2007, but remained secret until it was posted recently on the website of the New York Review of Books.
The CIA has declined to comment on the report.