WASHINGTON – The nation's intelligence chief says waterboarding "would be torture" if used against him or if someone under interrogation actually was taking water into his lungs.
But Mike McConnell, in a magazine interview, declined for legal reasons to say whether the technique categorically should be considered torture.
"If it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it," McConnell told The New Yorker, which published a 16,000-word article Sunday on the director of national intelligence.
The comments come as the House Intelligence Committee investigates the CIA's destruction of videotaped interrogations of two Al Qaeda suspects. The tapes were made in 2002 and destroyed three years later, over fears they would leak. They depicted the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques against two of the three men known to have been waterboarded by the CIA.
As McConnell describes it, a prisoner is strapped down with a wash cloth over his face and water is dripped into his nose.
"If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can't imagine how painful! Whether it's torture by anybody else's definition, for me it would be torture," McConnell told the magazine.
A spokesman for McConnell said he does not dispute the quotes attributed to him in the story by Lawrence Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for "The Looming Towers", a book on Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attacks.
McConnell said the legal test for torture should be "pretty simple."
"Is it excruciatingly painful to the point of forcing someone to say something because of the pain?" he said.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto refused comment Saturday on waterboarding.
"We don't talk about interrogation techniques. And we are not going to respond to every little thing that shows up in the press," he told The Associated Press. "We think McConnell is doing an incredible job heading up the intelligence community, reforming it and making it incredibly effective in being able to provide the president the best intelligence on threats to the nation. We think it's vitally important he and the intelligence community have all the tools they need."
Attorney General Michael Mukasey has declined to rule on whether waterboarding is torture. An affirmative finding by Muksasey could put at risk the CIA interrogators who were given permission by the White House in 2002 to waterboard three prisoners deemed resistant to conventional techniques. The CIA has not used the technique since 2003; CIA Director Michael Hayden prohibited in 2006.
The House and Senate intelligence committees want to prohibit the CIA from using any interrogation techniques not allowed by the military. That list includes waterboarding. If their bill authorizing intelligence activities for 2008 is approved by Congress, it almost certainly will face a veto from President Bush.
Last summer he issued an executive order allowing the CIA to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" that go beyond what is allowed in the 2006 Army Field Manual.
The House has approved the bill. The Senate has not yet voted on it because of objections to that restriction.
Wright disclosed in his article that the government has eavesdropped on his own telephone conversations with sources at least twice.
One was with a relative of Aymen al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, who wanted to know if all of Zawahiri's children were dead. Wright was told by an intelligence source that a summary of that phone call was contained in an intelligence database. Under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act, if the government did not have a court order to monitor Wright, his name should have been concealed in the database.
Wright also was approached by FBI officials about calls he made to the lawyer of several men he had interviewed for his book on Al Qaeda. Wright says the FBI erroneously believed his daughter, who had just graduated from college and was in Paris, had placed the calls. That landed her in FBI files as an Al Qaeda connection.
McConnell told Wright he did not know how his daughter's name would have become known to the agency.
It is unclear under what authorities those intercepts were conducted.
"It may be troublesome, it may not be," McConnell said. "You don't know."
Wright told the AP the conversation with McConnell disturbed him because he realized his calls — and therefore his sources — could be exposed to government eavesdropping.
The Senate returns to work this month on a domestic surveillance law to replace the one Congress hastily passed in August. That law, which expanded the government's authority to listen in on American communications without court permission, expires Feb. 1. There are deep political divisions over whether telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on U.S. citizens' calls should be protected from lawsuits.
In discussing Usama bin Laden, McConnell said if the U.S. got a read on the Al Qaeda's leader's precise location, it would not hesitate to cross the Pakistan border to capture or kill him. "You cannot indiscriminately attack a sovereign nation," McConnell said, but said "we'll bring it to closure." He says bin Laden is in the lawless region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.