Senate Democrats demanded a criminal investigation into waterboarding by government interrogators Tuesday after the Bush administration acknowledged for the first time that the tactic was used on three terror suspects.
In congressional testimony Tuesday, CIA director Michael Hayden became the first administration official to publicly acknowledge the agency used waterboarding on detainees after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Waterboarding involves strapping a suspect down and pouring water over his cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning. It has been traced back hundreds of years to the Spanish Inquisition and is condemned by nations around the world.
"We used it against these three detainees because of the circumstances at the time," Hayden told the Senate Intelligence Committee. "There was the belief that additional catastrophic attacks against the homeland were inevitable. And we had limited knowledge about al-Qaida and its workings. Those two realities have changed."
Hayden said Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubayda and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri were waterboarded in 2002 and 2003. Hayden banned the technique in 2006, but national intelligence director Mike McConnell told senators during the same hearing Tuesday that waterboarding remains in the CIA arsenal - so long as it has the specific consent of the president and legal approval of the attorney general.
That prompted Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to call on the Justice Department to open a criminal inquiry into whether past use of waterboarding violated any law. The Pentagon has banned its employees from using waterboarding to extract information from detainees, and FBI director Robert Mueller said his investigators do not use coercive tactics in interviewing terror suspects.
Durbin, already frustrated with Attorney General Michael Mukasey's refusal last week to define waterboarding as a form of torture, said he would block the nomination of the Justice Department's No. 2 official if the criminal inquiry isn't opened.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department is reviewing the request.