By Stephen Foley

 

The head of the US intelligence community has come closer than any other official in the Bush administration to comdemning the interrogation technique of “waterboarding” as torture, stoking a legal row over its use by the CIA.

Mike McConnell, the US Director of National Intelligence, 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?”

Although waterboarding has been considered torture for more than a century and the US military is banned from using it, President George Bush has defended “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the CIA. Waterboarding is a process of controlled drowning in which a suspect’s lungs are filled with water and he is made to believe he is dying.

Controversy over whether the practice constitutes torture has put Mr Bush on a collision course with the Democrats, who want it banned. More significantly, CIA agents who have carried out waterboarding – and their superiors who approved the practice – could face legal action.

“If it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it,” Mr McConnell told The New Yorker magazine yesterday. “If I had water draining into my nose… oh God, I just can’t imagine how painful. Whether it is torture by anybody else’s definition, for me it would be torture.”

Last month, a former CIA officer revealed that Abu Zubaida, a senior al-Qai’da suspect, was subjected to waterboarding and broke down in about 35 seconds. John Kiriakou, who was based in Pakistan, said it “was like flipping a switch”.