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US Lawmakers Continue Debate Over 'Waterboarding' Interrogation Technique

Lawmakers pressed the U.S. attorney general on Thursday for more specifics about the legal justifications used by the Bush administration in authorizing the past use of the extreme interrogation technique known as waterboarding. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, the subject was also a major topic in congressional hearings, and the focus of more questions at a White House briefing, as the debate continues over interrogation techniques.

Officials are now telling Congress that President Bush made a specific decision to provide additional information about the use of waterboarding because of the way the issue was being reported in the media.

That new information came in a congressional hearing this week when CIA director Michael Hayden revealed that the technique was used on three al-Qaida terrorist suspects in the wake of the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the United States, although not in the past five years or so.

But in his latest appearance on Capitol Hill, before the House intelligence committee, Hayden faced more tough questions about why the CIA employed the technique, and why it insists on retaining the option to use it again.

He had this exchange with Congressman Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat.

HOLT: "My question is when you must use them and why you must retain them, what is the justification, when [and] what circumstances, or why?"

HAYDEN: "[When] an unlawful combatant is possessing information that would help us prevent catastrophic loss of life of Americans or their allies."

Hayden said that in the overwhelming majority of cases involving detainees in the CIA program, enhanced interrogation techniques were not needed.

But Representative Holt went on to ask FBI director Robert Mueller and Lt. General John Maples, who heads the Defense Intelligence Agency, why their organizations do not use the techniques.

MUELLER: "From the perspective of the FBI, our protocol is not to use coercive techniques. That is our protocol, we have lived by it, and it is sufficient and appropriate for our mission here in the United States."

MAPLES: "The Army Field Manual guides our efforts and the efforts of the armed forces."

HOLT: "That is satisfactory for all of your interrogations?"

MAPLES: "Yes sir, we believe that the approaches that are in the Army Field Manual give us the tools that are necessary for the purpose under which we are conducting interrogation."

In a separate hearing, House judiciary committee chairman John Conyers pressed U.S. attorney general, Michael Mukasey, to explain why he has refused to open a formal investigation into past use of waterboarding.

CONYERS: "Are you ready to start a criminal investigation into whether this confirmed use of waterboarding by U.S. agents was illegal?"

MUKASEY: "No I am not for this reason. Whatever was done as part of a CIA program, at the time that it was done, was the subject of a Department of Justice opinion through the Office of Legal Counsel, and was found to be permissible under the law as it was then."

Mukasey said that to launch an investigation simply because past use of waterboarding was confirmed would be to place past and future Department of Justice opinions in question.

In an exchange with Republican Congressman John McHugh, CIA director Hayden was pressed to clarify his agency's current thinking on waterboarding and appeared to cast doubt on the legality of the practice:

MCHUGH: "And it is your understanding and your method of operation right now that that is a prohibited technique?"

HAYDEN: "It is not a technique that I have asked for, it is not included in the current program, and my own view, the view of our lawyers, and the Department of Justice, it is not certain that that technique would be considered to be lawful under current statute."

The White House continues to defend the justice department legal opinions supporting the CIA's use of waterboarding, saying they were necessary to protect Americans against further terrorist attacks.

Deputy press spokesman Tony Fratto was asked whether the White House was refusing to rule out use of waterboarding in the future.

"I think we acknowledge that it had been done in the past in an exceedingly limited way, with safeguards and under certain circumstances.," he said. "We have made clear that the law has changed that has given greater clarity to these questions and to the policy of the U.S. but we are not going to speculate on the future, that is all we have said."

Amnesty International issued a statement Thursday criticizing Mukasey's refusal to open an investigation, saying the Bush administration's refusal to call waterboarding torture a double standard.

Attorney General Mukasey told judiciary panel chairman Conyers that while the Department of Justice cannot simply turn over the specifics text of its legal opinion, it can be the subject of future briefings.

Lawmakers also continue to investigate another aspect of the controversy over interrogation, the CIA's destruction, undisclosed at first, of interrogation videotapes, a matter that is also the subject of a justice department probe.