( dpa ) - The director of the CIA said Tuesday the agency used waterboarding to interrogate three high level al-Qaeda detainees, including the suspected mastermind of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Michael Hayden told the Senate intelligence panel that waterboarding was used to glean information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri at a "critical time" because of worries more attacks were planned against the United States.
"We used it against these three high-value detainees because of the circumstances of the time," Hayden said. "Very critical to those circumstances was the belief that additional catastrophic attacks against the homeland were imminent."
Hayden's comments marked the first time a US official has identified detainees who were subjected to the technique that simulates drowning. He said the three men were the only ones who were waterboarded, and that the CIA has not used the practice in five years.
"Waterboarding has been used on only three detainees," Hayden said. "It was used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It was used on Abu Zubaydah. And it was used on Nashiri."
Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in March 2003 and held in a secret CIA prison for years before being transferred last year to the US detention facility at Guantanamo, Bay, Cuba where he faces a military trial.
According to the Pentagon, Mohammed admitted to his role in planning the September 11 attacks and in the brutal 2002 slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter and US citizen Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
Zubaydah was one of Osama bin Laden's closest deputies until his capture in Pakistan in 2002. He was also secretly held before being transferred to Guantanamo. Al-Nashiri, a senior level al-Qaeda operations planner captured in the United Arab Emirates in 2002, is also being held at Guantanamo.
The Bush administration refuses to say whether waterboarding is a violation of US torture laws. President George W Bush has insisted the United States does not torture but has acknowledged the use of tough interrogation techniques in the war on terrorism.
The top US law enforcement official, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that because the CIA was not currently using the practice, there was no need for him to specify whether it was legal.
"Given that waterboarding is not part of the current programme and may never be added to the current programme, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to pass definitive judgment on the technique's legality," Mukasey said.
Mukasey said there are some circumstances under US law that would "clearly" ban the use of waterboarding during interrogations, but in other cases it would "present a far closer question."
"If this were an easy question, I would not be reluctant to offer my views on this subject," Mukasey said.