"When we find somebody who may have information regarding a potential attack on America, you bet we're going to detain them, and you bet we're going to question them," he said during a hastily called appearance in the Oval Office. "The American people expect us to find out information, actionable intelligence so we can help protect them. That's our job."
Mr. Bush was referring to a report on two secret memos in 2005 that authorized extreme interrogation tactics against terror suspects. "This government does not torture people," the president said.
Mr. Bush said the interrogations have produced information that has helped to protect the American people, though he offered no specifics, CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss reports.
The two Justice Department legal opinions were disclosed in Thursday's editions of The New York Times, which reported that the first 2005 legal opinion authorized the use of head slaps, freezing temperatures and simulated drownings, known as waterboarding, while interrogating terror suspects, and was issued shortly after then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took over the Justice Department.
That secret opinion, which explicitly allowed using the painful methods in combination, came months after a December 2004 opinion in which the Justice Department publicly declared torture "abhorrent" and the administration seemed to back away from claiming authority for such practices.
A second Justice opinion was issued later in 2005, just as Congress was working on an anti-torture bill. That opinion declared that none of the CIA's interrogation practices would violate the rules in the legislation banning "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of detainees, The Times said, citing interviews with unnamed current and former officials.
"We stick to U.S. law and international obligations," the president said, without taking questions afterward.
White House and Justice Department press officers have said the 2005 opinions did not reverse the 2004 policy.
Mr. Bush, speaking emphatically, noted that "highly trained professionals" conduct any questioning. "And by the way," he said, "we have gotten information from these high-value detainees that have helped protect you."
He also said that the techniques used by the United States "have been fully disclosed to appropriate members of the United States Congress" - an indirect slap at the torrent of criticism that has flowed from the Democratic-controlled Congress since the memos' disclosure.
"The American people expect their government to take action to protect them from further attack," Mr. Bush said. "And that's exactly what this government is doing. And that's exactly what we'll continue to do."
House Democrats demanded Thursday that the Justice Department turn over the two secret memos.
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., promised a congressional inquiry into the two Justice Department legal opinions that reportedly "explicitly authorized the use of painful and psychological tactics on terrorism suspects."
"Both the alleged content of these opinions and the fact that they have been kept secret from Congress are extremely troubling, especially in light of the department's 2004 withdrawal of an earlier opinion similarly approving such methods," House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., wrote in a letter Thursday to Acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler.
The two Democrats also asked that Steven Bradbury, the Justice Department's acting chief of legal counsel, "be made available for prompt committee hearings."
The issue quickly hit the presidential campaign trail.
"The secret authorization of brutal interrogations is an outrageous betrayal of our core values, and a grave danger to our security," Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said in a statement. "We must do whatever it takes to track down and capture or kill terrorists, but torture is not a part of the answer - it is a fundamental part of the problem with this administration's approach."