CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said publicly for the first time Tuesday that his agency had used the harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding on three Al Qaeda suspects, and he testified that depriving the agency of coercive methods would "increase the danger to America."
In the most detailed public comments on a CIA program that had been shrouded in secrecy for years, Hayden said the agency had used simulated drowning to extract crucial information from terrorism suspects in 2002 and 2003.
He also testified that only three detainees were ever subjected to the method: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks; Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda operative tied to the Sept. 11 plot; and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a Saudi suspected of playing a key role in the bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000.
Appearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Hayden said the CIA had ceased using waterboarding nearly five years ago, but he made a vigorous case for preserving the agency's ability to use "enhanced" interrogation techniques.
Information provided by two of the waterboarded prisoners, Mohammed and Zubaydah, accounted for 25% of the human intelligence reports circulated by the CIA on Al Qaeda in the five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Hayden said.
And at a time when Congress is considering imposing sweeping new restrictions on the CIA, Hayden warned of potentially deadly consequences.
"If you create a box, we will play inside the box without exception," he said. "My view is that would substantially increase the danger to America."
Hayden's testimony came during a hearing that was supposed to focus on national security threats.
Instead, the session was dominated by a renewed debate over spy powers the Bush administration asserted after the Sept. 11 attacks, particularly interrogation methods.
The hearing exposed persistent fault lines between the political parties on the interrogation issue. Some Democrats on the panel have said that waterboarding amounts to torture.
Panel Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) questioned whether harsh CIA methods "undermined our moral standing" and reduced cooperation in the war on terrorism.
Even among administration officials testifying Tuesday, there were signs of shifting positions and divisions on the issue.
At one point, National Intelligence Director J. Michael McConnell distanced himself from recent comments in a magazine article indicating he considered waterboarding a form of torture. The comments were taken out of context, he said.
McConnell acknowledged the severity of the technique, saying that "waterboarding, taken to its extreme, could be death." But there are scenarios in which it might be employed, he said.
"It is a legal technique," he said, "used in a specific set of circumstances."
Moments after McConnell's comments, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III seemed to undercut the case for using extreme methods, testifying that the FBI had extracted critical information from former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein without coercive techniques.
Asked whether the FBI's method had been effective, Mueller said, "We believe so."
The sparring came during testimony in which the nation's top intelligence officials offered a mixed assessment of the security environment confronting the United States.
They contrasted security improvements in Iraq with growing violence and unrest in Pakistan. McConnell testified that 1,360 Pakistanis were killed by suicide bombings and other extremist attacks in 2007, more than in the previous six years combined.
The December assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto "could embolden Pashtun militants, increasing their confidence that they can strike the Pakistani establishment anywhere in the country," McConnell said.
The troop surge has brought significant gains in stability in Iraq, McConnell said, but it remains unlikely that the Iraqi government can resolve divisions among sectarian and ethnic groups over the next year.
Al Qaeda remains the most dangerous threat to the United States, the senators were told. But the terrorist network has begun to "lose some of its luster" among Muslims around the world because of setbacks in Iraq, McConnell said.
Nevertheless, he continued, Al Qaeda has strengthened its ability to strike targets in the West because of a steady flow of recruits from Western countries into Al Qaeda's base in the tribal region of Pakistan.
"Al Qaeda is improving the last key aspect of its ability to attack the U.S.," McConnell said, citing "the identification, training and positioning of operatives for an attack in the homeland."
Those dire words served as a backdrop for the debate on intelligence-gathering methods, including McConnell's push for expanded authority to intercept calls and e-mails overseas, as well as Hayden's vigorous defense of the CIA's interrogation program.
President Bush signed an executive order last summer imposing new restrictions on the CIA. Many lawmakers believe the agency should be reined in further.
As soon as next week, the Senate is poised to consider legislation, passed by the House, that would require the CIA to abide by the tighter rules adopted by the Army in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Hayden scoffed at the suggestion, saying that it made no more sense to apply the Army's interrogation rules to CIA operatives "than it would be to take the Army Field Manual on grooming and apply it to my agency."
During his testimony, Hayden said that the CIA had ceased using waterboarding nearly five years ago. Democrats who have been highly critical of the administration's use of harsh interrogation methods seized on the admissions by Hayden.
Durbin also said he was putting a hold on the nomination of federal judge Mark Filip to become the department's No. 2 official unless Mukasey answers questions about interrogation methods and Justice Department policies.
Times staff writers Josh Meyer and Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.