WASHINGTON — The director of the Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged Tuesday that his agency had subjected three suspected al Qaida terrorists to waterboarding but said the agency hadn't employed the tactic in almost five years.
News reports long have cited unidentified sources in claiming that the CIA had used waterboarding on suspected terrorists, but Gen. Michael Hayden's comments before a Senate committee were the first time that a Bush administration official had confirmed it publicly.
Hayden said waterboarding had been used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and on two other terrorist suspects, Abu Zubayda and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, while they were in secret CIA custody. They were sent to the U.S. military's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006.
Hayden said the three were subjected to the technique, which involves pouring water over the mouth and nose to give the sensation of drowning, at a time when intelligence officials knew little about al Qaida and feared that more attacks were imminent.
"Those two realities have changed," he said.
President Bush's authorization of waterboarding as one of a number of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that could be employed against al Qaida suspects has been controversial since it was revealed three years ago.
The technique long has been considered torture by international legal organizations, and Congress is considering banning the CIA from using it. The Army field manual on interrogation prohibits its use by the military.
It was the second major revelation from Hayden in two months about the treatment of suspected terrorists while the CIA held them secretly. On Dec. 6, he told CIA employees that videotapes of Abu Zubayda's interrogation had been destroyed.
The international advocacy group Human Rights Watch said that waterboarding was torture and a violation of the War Crimes Act and the federal anti-torture law. The group said officials should be prosecuted.
"General Hayden's acknowledgment that the CIA subjected three detainees to waterboarding is an explicit admission of criminal activity," said Joanne Mariner, the group's terrorism and counterterrorism director. "Those who authorized these crimes have to be held accountable."
Hayden stressed that waterboarding hasn't been used in nearly five years, and that other so-called "enhanced" techniques had been used on "fewer than one-third" of the "fewer than 100" people the CIA has held since 9-11. He said that although the techniques went beyond what was allowed in the Army field manual, the attorney general had certified them as legal for the CIA. The use of waterboarding would require the agreement of the president and attorney general, he said.
His comments came during a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the risk that terrorist groups pose in which he said the U.S. faced dangers from al Qaida, groups that get money or training from terrorist organizations and what officials call "homegrown extremists" in the United States.
Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, who also testified, said that U.S. cells hadn't been very effective so far but that they could use information on the Internet to become more deadly.
"The growing use of the Internet to identify and connect with networks throughout the world offers opportunities to build relationships and gain expertise that previously were available only in overseas training camps," he said at the hearing, at which he presented his annual threat-assessment report.
The Internet sites, increasingly violent actions and rhetoric, and the growing number of cells "all suggest growth of a radical and violent segment among the West's Muslim populations," McConnell said.
"Our European allies regularly tell us that they are uncovering new extremist networks in their countries," he said. "While the threat from such homegrown extremists is greater in Europe, the U.S. is not immune."
FBI director Robert Mueller, who also testified, said that terrorists who'd staged attacks in Britain in 2005 and others recently arrested in Spain had gone to Pakistan for financial backing and training.
That's just "one plane ticket away from occurring in the United States," Mueller said.
McConnell also expressed concern that the group al Qaida in Iraq, which has been the focus of U.S. military activity in Iraq over the past year, could expand its reach.
"I am increasingly concerned that as we inflict significant damage on al Qaida in
Iraq, it may shift resources to mounting more attacks outside of Iraq," he testified.
McConnell's report says that Taliban forces in Afghanistan have grown stronger in that country's south and expanded into previously peaceful areas in the west and around Kabul. The captures or deaths of three key leaders last year seem not to have affected the group, which is benefiting financially from record opium harvests, he said.
In Pakistan, McConnell said, suicide attacks ordered by Islamic militants have reached unprecedented levels. More than 1,360 Pakistani security forces and civilians were killed or wounded in suicide bombings and armed clashes last year, more than in the previous five years combined.
McConnell said that while Pakistan's government had concluded that terrorists who'd taken shelter in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas posed a grave danger, the Pakistani army was ineffective, largely because it had been trained for conventional warfare with India, not for a battle with terrorists.
In response to a question, Hayden said he had "medium" confidence that conditions would continue to improve in Iraq this year.
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McConnell's threat-assessment report.