WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Waterboarding saved lives in the war against al Qaeda but is torture and should not be used, an ex-CIA interrogator said on Tuesday as lawmakers demanded answers about the agency’s destruction of videotapes showing the interrogation technique.
Former CIA interrogator John Kiriakou told U.S. news media that suspected al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaida agreed to cooperate after being subjected to the simulated drowning technique for less than a minute by CIA officials in 2002.
“It was like flipping a switch,” he told the Washington Post.
He said the session yielded valuable information and probably helped prevent attacks, but he now believes waterboarding is torture and “Americans are better than that.”
Many countries, U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups have denounced waterboarding as torture. Reports of its use, as well as harsh treatment of captives in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, have damaged the U.S. image around the world.
Kiriakou, who now works in the private sector, told his story to several media outlets as the CIA faced criticism for destroying a videotape of the interrogation, along with another showing the questioning of a second suspected al Qaeda member.
A judge had ordered the tapes to be preserved as possible evidence in a lawsuit filed by prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay naval base on Cuba, where the United States holds captured terrorism suspects.
A legal adviser at Guantanamo prison did not rule out using evidence collected from waterboarding suspects at military trials of detainees there.
“Torture is prohibited under U.S. law,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday. But when California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked him whether that meant that evidence from waterboarding was not used, he replied: “No ma’am, I didn’t say that.”
Critics have charged that the CIA destroyed the tapes to hide evidence of illegal torture. The agency said it destroyed the tapes in 2005 to protect the interrogators from possible retaliation.
The Justice Department, the CIA and the House and Senate oversight committees all plan to investigate the tape destruction.
In addition, the chairman and top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed the Justice Department to explain whether it knew of the tapes.
“What communication has the department had with the White House about the existence, plan to destroy and destruction of the videotapes?” Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter wrote in a letter to the Justice Department.
CIA director Michael Hayden and Attorney General Michael Mukasey were to testify on interrogation techniques on Tuesday behind closed doors to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino declined to comment on any specifics of the interrogation program but reiterated the White House position that the program was lawful.
“The president has repeatedly said that we do not torture, we also know that this program has saved lives by disrupting terrorist attacks,” Perino said.
Abu Zubaida was captured in Pakistan in the spring of 2002, one of the first high-level al Qaeda operatives to be taken into U.S. custody after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking attacks.
He was defiant and uncooperative until he was waterboarded that summer, said Kiriakou, who did not participate in the interrogation but was briefed by those who did. The next day he offered to tell his captors everything he knew, Kiriakou said.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria