WASHINGTON – The former head of the CIA says that aggressive interrogation tactics saved lives after Sept. 11, 2001, and he insists none of those tactics can be defined as torture.
"You know the image that's been portrayed is we sat around the fire and said 'oh, boy, we get to torture people,'" former CIA Director George Tenet says in an interview to air Sunday. "But we don't torture people. Let me say that again to you we don't torture people. ... I don't talk about techniques and we don't torture people."
In CBS' "60 Minutes" interview, Tenet said the program of questioning "high value" targets, a program that has been criticized for using sleep deprivation and water boarding among other techniques, was more valuable to the security of the United States than all the work done at the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency, which tracks foreign electronic communications.
Discussing at length the atmosphere at the CIA after the terror attacks, Tenet said it was one of real fear and real anxiety because no one knew when the other shoe would drop and end up killing thousands of Americans in the process.
"I've got reports of nuclear weapons in New York City, apartment buildings that are going to be blown up, planes that are going to fly into airports all over again, plots that I don't know. I don't know what's going on inside the United States and I'm struggling to find out where the next disaster is going to occur. Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through — the palpable fear that we felt on the basis of the fact that there was so much that we did not know," Tenet said.
One of the most important Al Qaeda operatives to be questioned was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was picked up in March 2003 in Pakistan. According to Tenet, Mohammed wanted to go to New York and get a lawyer before he would talk.
Congress passed legislation last year defining what enhanced interrogation techniques could be used during questioning of enemy combatants and detainees. The move came after the Supreme Court demanded Congress define the rules for interrogation. It defined abusive treatment of prisoners in the legislation, though critics said it left unclear precisely the methods permitted.
Asked about the Tenet interview, State Department spokesman Tom Casey described the interrogation debate as old news.
"Look, I think these issues have been well-covered and well- discussed. The U.S. does not support or condone torture. It does not practice torture. You've heard our statements on that over a long period of time."
Tenet also criticized the administration, claiming that they inappropriately used his uttering of the phrase "slam dunk," which he said during a closed-door White House meeting, to defend the administration's insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
He called the leak of that conversation dishonorable and despicable, CBS reports.
FOX News' Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.