CHICAGO (AFP) - - The director of the US Central Intelligence Agency on Tuesday defended the administration's rendition program, in which terrorism suspects are transported to secret prisons in countries with less stringent interrogation rules.
"Our programs are as lawful as they are valuable," said General Michael Hayden, as President George W. Bush's nominee for attorney general came under fire for his position on interrogation techniques.
"The irreplaceable nature of that intelligence is the sole reason why we have what I admit freely is a very controversial program," Hayden said in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The CIA has generated thousands of intelligence reports from the "fewer than 100 hardened terrorists" detained since 2002, he said.
"These rendition, detention, and interrogation programs are small, carefully run operations," he said, adding that less than a third of the detainees "have required any special methods of questioning."
The administration has come under intense scrutiny for its interrogation program and Bush's refusal to rule out the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" even as he insists that the US does not torture.
Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey on Tuesday condemned one such technique, waterboarding, as "repugnant" and possibly "over the line," but declined to explicitly rule it out as torture, saying he could not speculate on classified procedures.
He did, however, pledge to investigate interrogation techniques in a letter responding to growing criticism from leading Democrats who have threatened to block his confirmation.
Hayden said clarifying interrogation methods was a top priority when he took the helm of the CIA in May 2006.
"It was my belief -- and the agency has acted going forward -- that what it was we would do to protect the Republic had to have sustainability," he said in response to questions from the audience.
"It had to be consistent with our broad values as a nation. And so it could not stand on a single pillar of a definition of lawfulness. It had to have both policy and political legs."
The agency had intense discussions with both Congress and the Justice Department to determine exactly where the legal lines were drawn, and there is an officer present at all times to make sure the interrogation does not cross the line, he said.
"When we conduct interrogations there are officers who are responsible solely for the physical and well being of the detainee and have the authority to stop what is going on."
But when asked directly whether or not waterboarding constituted torture, Hayden gave a muddled and confusing response in which he cited domestic and international law.
"Judge Mukasey cannot nor can I answer your question in the abstract," he said. "I need to understand the totality of the circumstances in which this question is being posed before I can even answer that."