The White House is defending the use of the interrogation technique known as waterboarding in certain, rare circumstances when suspects are believed to have knowledge of an imminent threat. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports the Central Intelligence Agency now admits it used the technique roughly five years ago on three top terror suspects.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto says President Bush personally authorized the disclosure - breaking with the long-standing practice in the administration of refusing comment on specific interrogation techniques.
He says the decision to have Central Intelligence Agency chief Michael Hayden go before a Congressional committee and reveal the use of waterboarding in the past was difficult, because it could provide the enemy with information about the CIA's program for questioning terror suspects.
"This decision to allow General Hayden to talk about the technique wasn't taken lightly," Fratto said. "There was discussion of great concern about starting to talk about something we don't ordinarily do for reasons that we feel very strongly about."
Fratto says so much misinformation has been disseminated about the interrogation program, that the White House felt it was time to set the record straight.
Fratto says waterboarding - which simulates drowning - was approved in a few specific instances and with certain safeguards in place.
The CIA banned the practice in 2006. Fratto says interrogators might be able to use it again, but emphasized they would need authorization from the president to do so.
He noted that any CIA request to use the technique would have to be declared legal by the Justice Department before consideration at the White House. He says approval depends on the circumstances, adding one important factor would be the belief that an attack might be imminent.
"Any change to the enhanced interrogation technique that may be used will follow the process that I outlined which includes a legal review and notification of Congress," he said.
Critics have called waterboarding a form of torture. But Fratto says its use in the past under the conditions approved by the attorney general and the president was legal.
On Capitol Hill, a senior Democrat - Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois - denounced the use of waterboarding under any circumstances. He noted that in its annual human rights report, the U.S. State Department is quick to condemn other nations that use harsh interrogation techniques on prisoners.
"So once a year we stand in judgment of the world, and condemn them for engaging in waterboarding and torture techniques on their prisoners," he said. "And yet it is clear from the testimony yesterday of General Hayden, that we have engaged in some of those own techniques."
The U.N.'s torture investigator also responded to the CIA disclosure, calling on the Bush administration to give up its defense of enhanced interrogation methods such as waterboarding. Manfred Nowak told the Associated Press in Geneva that these techniques are totally unacceptable under international law.