WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States may use waterboarding to question terrorism suspects in the future, the White House said Wednesday, rejecting the widely held belief that the harsh practice amounts to torture.
"It will depend upon circumstances," spokesman Tony Fratto said. "The belief that an attack might be imminent, that could be a circumstance that you would definitely want to consider."
The practice, a staple of brutal interrogations from the Spanish Inquistion to Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime, usually consists of strapping down a captive, covering their face with a cloth, and pouring water onto the cloth.
Fratto underlined that the tactic -- which experts liken to controlled drowning -- is not currently permitted, but left the door wide open to resuming its use.
"The president will listen to the considered judgment of the professionals in the intelligence community and the judgment of the attorney general in terms of the legal consequences of employing a particular technique," he said.
His comments came one day after CIA director Michael Hayden for the first time admitted publicly that the agency had used waterboarding, to question three top Al-Qaeda detainees after the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes.
It was used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd Al-Rahim al-Nashiri at a time when further catastrophic attacks on the United States were believed to be imminent, Hayden said.
After years of insisting that disclosing any specific interrogation techniques would harm US national security, US President George W. Bush "authorized" the revelation," Fratto told reporters.
"There's been a lot written out there, in newspaper, magazine articles, some of it misinformation, and so the consensus was that on this one particular technique" a public defense was necessary, he explained.
Asked what factors Bush would weigh in deciding whether to reauthorize the use of waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA since the September 11th attacks, Fratto offered few details.
He said that the CIA chief would go to the attorney general to discuss whether a particular method was needed, what the safeguards were, and then the attorney general would decide whether it was legal before going to the White House.
"The president will listen to his advisers and make a determination," said Fratto, who rejected charges that the tactics the Central Intelligence Agency calls "enhanced interrogation techniques" amount to torture.
"Torture is illegal. Every enhanced technique that has been used by the Central Intelligence Agency through this program was brought to the Department of Justice and they made a determination that its use under specific circumstances and with safeguards was lawful," he said.
The spokesman said that the program would continue to operate under US law and "within our legal obligations with respect to" the Geneva Conventions.
Asked whether the White House's reasoning was that torture is illegal, the attorney general has certified that CIA interrogation practices are legal, therefore those practices are not torture, Fratto replied: "Sure."
Hayden testified Tuesday that the three waterboarded suspects were initially held and interrogated at secret CIA-run detention centers overseas before being transferred in 2006 to a military-run facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mohammed has claimed to be the operational mastermind of the September 11 the attacks. Abu Zubaydah is alleged to have been an aide to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. And al-Nashiri is alleged to have been the operational commander of the suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
Senate Democrats have demanded that Attorney General Michael Mukasey launch a Justice Department investigation into whether waterboarding vioated the law.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »