The order, however, does nothing to affect the military detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Rather, it is narrowly focused on al Qaeda leaders and operatives, whom the U.S. wants to press for information that may prevent future attacks, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.
The White House declined to say whether the CIA currently has a detention and interrogation program, but said that if it did it must adhere to the guidelines outlined in the executive order. The order targets captured al Qaeda terrorists who have information on attack plans or the whereabouts of the group's senior leaders.
"Last September, the president explained how the CIA's program had disrupted attacks and saved lives, and that it must continue on a sound legal footing," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. "The president has insisted on clear legal standards so that CIA officers involved in this essential work are not placed in jeopardy for doing their job — and keeping America safe from attacks."
The executive order was the result of legislation Bush signed in October that authorized military trials of terrorism suspects. The court system was designed to protect classified information and eliminated some of the rights defendants are guaranteed in civilian and military courts.
It also gave Bush wide latitude in interrogating and detaining captured enemy combatants. While it outlines specific war crimes such as rape, the legislation said the president can "interpret the meaning and application" of international standards set by the Geneva Conventions when authorizing less severe interrogation procedures.
The Supreme Court had ruled in June 2006 that trying detainees in military tribunals violated U.S. and international law, so Bush urged Congress to change the law. He also insisted that the law authorize CIA agents to use tough methods to interrogate suspected terrorists.
The United States has been criticized by European allies and others around the world over interrogation techniques such as "waterboarding," in which prisoners are strapped to a plank over water and are made to fear that they may be drowned. Critics also have complained that the CIA has run secret prisons on European soil and mistreated prisoners during clandestine flights in and out of Europe.
Bush has repeatedly said that the United States does not practice torture but has not spelled out specific banned procedures.
Leonard Rubenstein, director of Physicians for Human Rights, said the executive order was inadequate.
"What is needed now is repudiation of brutal and cruel interrogation methods. General statements like this are inadequate, particularly after years of evidence that torture was authorized at the highest levels and utilized by U.S. forces," he said.
"This executive order says nothing about holding people secretly," said Stacy Sullivan, U.S. Media Director for Human Rights Watch, told CBS News. "And that in itself is contrary to the Geneva Convention, [and] this executive order says nothing to prevent that from happening."
The White House did not detail what types of interrogation procedures would be allowed. But it did offer parameters, saying any conditions of confinement and interrogation practices could not include:
The order also says that detainees must receive basic necessities, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extreme heat and cold and essential medical care. It says whatever interrogation practices used must be determined safe on an individual basis. To ensure the professional operation and safety of the program, it directs the CIA director to issue written policies to govern the program, including guidelines for CIA personnel.
"I think that this executive order says a lot more by what it doesn't say than what it does say," Amnesty International's Jumana Musa said. "We certainly welcome the fact that it has explicit prohibition on things like sexual humiliation, sexual acts, denigration of religion. The things that they don't address directly are the things that have been widely talked about as part of their CIA program, like waterboarding, the cold room technique which almost induces hypothermia [and] sleep deprivation."
The executive order has been months in the making, with some in the CIA increasingly eager to get the rules of the road laid out. Asked if one of the agency's most extreme techniques — waterboarding — would be allowed, a senior intelligence official declined to provide any specifics. But, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the order, said: "It would be wrong to assume the program of the past transfers to the future."
While the order did not provide many specifics, CIA Director Michael Hayden asked the Justice Department to prepare a legal opinion on techniques the agency can use, and the CIA has prepared guidance to its operatives in the field, according to the senior official.
In a call with reporters, senior administration officials repeatedly refused to say what specific kinds of interrogation techniques would be barred, arguing that doing so could tip off al Qaeda members training to withstand hostile questioning. But sleep is not among the basic necessities outlined in the order, one official said, opening the possibility that sleep deprivation is among the approved interrogation methods.
The order also does not permit detainees to contact their family members or have access to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Explaining why, one official said those provisions are not part of the part of the Geneva Conventions that apply to these kinds of detainees.
"I think really the larger problem with this is, now the administration has gone through this exercise to determine what is and isn't appropriate for the CIA program of detention, which is essentially a program of secret detention and disappearances," Amnesty Internatrional's Musa said. "And it skips over the fact that in and of itself it's illegal. I know that the president doesn't seem to think it's illegal and it complies with U.S. treaty obligations, but everybody else knows it to be illegal."