Porter J. Goss, the director of central intelligence, said Thursday that he could not assure Congress that the Central Intelligence Agency's methods of interrogating terrorism suspects since Sept. 11, 2001, had been permissible under federal laws prohibiting torture.
Under sharp questioning at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Goss sought to reassure lawmakers that all interrogations "at this time" were legal and that no methods now in use constituted torture. But he declined, when asked, to make the same broad assertions about practices used over the last few years.
"At this time, there are no 'techniques,' if I could say, that are being employed that are in any way against the law or would meet - would be considered torture or anything like that," Mr. Goss said in response to one question.
When he was asked several minutes later whether he could say the same about techniques employed by the agency since the campaign against Al Qaeda expanded in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks in the United States, he said, "I am not able to tell you that."
He added that he might be able to elaborate after the committee went into closed session to take classified testimony.
Mr. Goss's comments came closer than previous statements from the agency to an admission that at least some of its practices might have crossed the legal limits, and had the effect of raising new questions about the C.I.A.'s conduct in detaining and questioning terror suspects, and in transferring them to foreign governments, in what remains one of the most secretive areas of the government's efforts to combat terrorism.
Asked to clarify his remarks, the agency issued two statements, but no official would agree to be named because of the highly classified subject matter.
"The agency complies with the laws of the United States, and the director's testimony consistently stated that," said a C.I.A. spokeswoman. "None of his comments were intended to convey anything otherwise."
Asked about the legality of practices in the past, a government official said, "The C.I.A. has always complied with the legal guidelines it received from the Department of Justice in regard to interrogation."
At the hearing, Mr. Goss acknowledged that there had been "some uncertainty" in the past among C.I.A. officers about what interrogation techniques were specifically permitted and prohibited. A legal memorandum relaxing the limits on interrogation was issued in 2002 but repudiated by the administration in 2004.
Mr. Goss said he believed that the uncertainty had been resolved, and that C.I.A. employees recently were "erring on the side of caution" in choosing what techniques to use.
Unlike the Pentagon, which has completed several broad inquiries in the last year into alleged abuses involving detention and interrogation, the C.I.A. has not completed any of what intelligence officials say are about a half-dozen internal reviews into the conduct of its employees in a number of incidents, some involving the deaths of four prisoners in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Goss said he did not know when the C.I.A.'s inspector general would complete several reviews now under way into suspected misconduct by C.I.A. officers and contract employees. Among the activities under scrutiny by the inspector general and by Congress is the agency's role in the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects in Iraq, as well as the transfer of 100 to 150 people suspected of being terrorists to the custody of foreign governments since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In addition, an estimated three dozen people suspected of being terrorist leaders, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is suspected of being the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, remain in C.I.A. custody in secret sites around the world. Intelligence officials have acknowledged that the C.I.A. has used coercive techniques against those suspects, drawing from a list of practices approved within the Bush administration, including some not authorized for use by the military.
In the session, Mr. Goss was challenged by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. When Mr. McCain asked Mr. Goss about the C.I.A.'s previously reported use of a technique known as waterboarding, in which a prisoner is made to believe that he will drown, Mr. Goss replied only that the approach fell into "an area of what I will call professional interrogation techniques."
He vigorously defended "professional interrogation" as an important tool in efforts against terrorism, saying that it had resulted in "documented successes" in averting attacks and capturing important suspects. Mr. Goss said that Congress had been kept fully informed of the techniques used by the C.I.A., and that those currently being used did not constitute torture, which is prohibited by law.
"As I said publicly before, and I know for a fact, that torture is not - it's not productive," Mr. Goss said. "That's not professional interrogation. We don't do torture."
At times in his appearance, Mr. Goss described some of the approaches now used by the C.I.A., including the transfer of terrorism suspects to the custody of foreign governments, as not much more than a continuation of techniques used by the agency before the Sept. 11 attacks. But other intelligence officials have acknowledged that the C.I.A.'s use of detention, interrogation and rendition, which refers to the transfers, represents a major expansion in its authorities, and Mr. Goss seemed to acknowledge that point.
"We have changed some of the ways we gather secrets," he said, referring to the period since the Sept. 11 attacks. Despite the sharp Congressional questioning, he added, "I'd much rather explain why we did something than why we did nothing, and I'm asking your support in that endeavor."