WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The CIA’s current techniques for interrogating terrorism suspects are legal and do not include a widely condemned method known as waterboarding, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey told Congress on Tuesday.
Mukasey declined, however, in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy on the eve of testimony before the panel, to say whether he considered waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, to be illegal.
A U.S. official confirmed last week that waterboarding was used in the past but had not been used for several years.
“The interrogation techniques currently authorized in the CIA program comply with the law,” Mukasey wrote Leahy. “A limited set of methods is currently authorized for use in that program. ... Waterboarding is not, and may not be, used in the current program.”
Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, and other lawmakers repeatedly pressed Mukasey in his confirmation hearings last year and afterward to say whether he considered waterboarding an illegal form of torture, as do many human rights groups and other critics.
If Mukasey agreed, it could open the door to prosecution of officials involved in CIA’s interrogation program launched after the Sept. 11 attacks. Mukasey, who had said in a letter to the committee before his confirmation that waterboarding is “repugnant to me,” said he would review the interrogation program.
But Mukasey told Leahy on Tuesday that since waterboarding was not now in use, he did not feel it appropriate to give an opinion.
“As a general matter, I do not believe that it is advisable to address difficult legal questions, about which responsible minds can and do differ, in the absence of concrete facts and circumstances,” he said.
“There are some circumstances where current law would appear clearly to prohibit the use of waterboarding. Other circumstances would present a far closer question,” he said.
Leahy rejected Mukasey’s position.
“This last-minute response from the attorney general echoes what other administration officials have said about the use of waterboarding,” he said. “It does not, however, answer the critical questions we have been asking about its legality. Attorney General Mukasey knows that this will not end the matter and expects to be asked serious questions at the hearing tomorrow.”
John Negroponte, the first U.S. director of national intelligence, who served from 2005 to 2007, confirmed in a magazine interview published last week that waterboarding had been used in the interrogation program. But Negroponte, now deputy secretary of state, said it was not used during his term as spy chief “nor even a few years before that.”
Although the Bush administration has been reluctant to discuss waterboarding publicly, Negroponte’s remarks were in line with earlier reports that the CIA discontinued waterboarding in 2003, after using it on three “high-value” detainees.
Mukasey on Jan. 2 ordered the Justice Department to investigate the CIA’s destruction of videotapes depicting the harsh interrogations of two terrorism suspects in 2002. At least one of the subjects, Abu Zubaydah, was believed to have been subjected to waterboarding.
Mukasey has rejected calls to appoint an independent counsel for the investigation. He has indicated investigators would be free to pursue evidence of illegal interrogation techniques in their probe, but department officials have said the focus remains on the tapes’ destruction.