Coming in From the Cold: CIA Spy Calls Waterboarding Necessary But Torture

A leader of the CIA team that captured the first major al Qaeda figure, Abu Zubaydah, says subjecting him to waterboarding was torture but necessary.

In the first public comment by any CIA officer involved in handling high-value al Qaeda targets, John Kiriakou, now retired, said the technique broke Zubaydah in less than 35 seconds.

(Editor's Note for Video to the Left: Material from this video transcript may not be used without crediting ABC News in each instance of use. In all cases, use must be limited to one minute or less without the explicit permission of ABC News.)

This story has been updated (see endnote).

"The next day, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate," said Kiriakou in an interview to be broadcast tonight on ABC News' "World News With Charles Gibson" and "Nightline."

"From that day on, he answered every question," Kiriakou said. "The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage.

Kiriakou said the feeling in the months after the 9/11 attacks was that interrogators did not have the time to delve into the agency's bag of other interrogation tricks.

"Those tricks of the trade require a great deal of time -- much of the time -- and we didn't have that luxury. We were afraid that there was another major attack coming," he said.

Kiriakou says he did not know that the interrogation of Zubaydah was being secretly recorded by the CIA and had no idea the tapes had been destroyed.

Now retired, Kiriakou, who declined to use the enhanced interrogation techniques, says he has come to believe that water boarding is torture but that perhaps the circumstances warranted it.

"Like a lot of Americans, I'm involved in this internal, intellectual battle with myself weighing the idea that waterboarding may be torture versus the quality of information that we often get after using the waterboarding technique," Kiriakou told ABC News. "And I struggle with it."

But he says the urgency in the wake of 9/ll led to a desire to do everything possible to get actionable intelligence.

That began with Abu Zubaydah's capture following a series of raids in which Kiriakou co-led a team of CIA officers, FBI agents, a Port Authority police officer named Tom McHale and Pakistani police, including a SWAT team.

And, in the case of Abu Zubayda, it ended with waterboarding.

Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage.

"What happens if we don't waterboard a person, and we don't get that nugget of information, and there's an attack," Kiriakou said. "I would have trouble forgiving myself."

The former intelligence officer says the interrogators' activities were carefully directed from Langley, Va., each step of the way.

(Editor's Note on Interview Transcripts: Material from this transcript may not be used without crediting ABC News in each instance of use. In all cases, use must be limited to 250 words or less without the explicit permission of ABC News.)

Click Here for Part One of the Transcript with John Kiriakou.

Click Here for Part Two of the Transcript with John Kiriakou.

"It wasn't up to individual interrogators to decide, 'Well, I'm gonna slap him.' Or, 'I'm going to shake him.' Or, 'I'm gonna make him stay up for 48 hours.'

"Each one of these steps, even though they're minor steps, like the intention shake, or the open-handed belly slap, each one of these had to have the approval of the deputy director for operations," Kiriakou told ABC News.

"The cable traffic back and forth was extremely specific," he said. "And the bottom line was these were very unusual authorities that the agency got after 9/11. No one wanted to mess them up. No one wanted to get in trouble by going overboard. So it was extremely deliberate."

And it was always a last resort.

Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage.

"That's why so few people were waterboarded. I think the agency has said that two people were waterboarded, Abu Zubaydah being one, and it's because you really wanted it to be a last resort because we didn't want these false confessions. We didn't want wild goose chases," Kiriakou said.

And they were faced with men like Abu Zubaydah, Kiriakou says, who held critical and timely intelligence.

"A former colleague of mine asked him during the conversation one day, 'What would you do if we decided to let you go one day?' And he said, 'I would kill every American and Jew I could get my hands on...It's nothing personal. You're a nice guy. But this is who I am.'"

In that context, at that time, Kiriakou says he felt waterboarding was something the United States needed to do.

"At the time, I felt that waterboarding was something that we needed to do. And as time has passed, and as September 11th has, you know, has moved farther and farther back into history, I think I've changed my mind," he told ABC News.

Part of his decision appears to be an ethical one; another part, perhaps, simply pragmatic.

"I think we're chasing them all over the world. I think we've had a great deal of success chasing them...and, as a result, waterboarding, at least right now, is unnecessary," Kirikou said.

Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage.

Brian Ross: "Did it compromise American principles? Or did it save American lives? Or both?"

John Kiriakou: "I think both. It may have compromised our principles at least in the short term. And I think it's good that we're having a national debate about this. We should be debating this, and Congress should be talking about it because, I think, as a country, we have to decide if this is something that we want to do as a matter of policy. I'm not saying now that we should, but, at the very least, we should be talking about it. It shouldn't be secret. It should be out there as part of the national debate."

A CIA spokesperson declined to specifically address Kiriakou's comments.

In a statement, the CIA reiterated its long standing position that "the United States does not conduct or condone torture. The CIA's terrorist interrogation effort has always been small, carefully run, lawful and highly productive."

UPDATE: U.S. Government documents released in April 2009 indicate that Kiriakou's account that Abu Zubaydah broke after only one water boarding session was incorrect. According to a footnote in newly released, previously classified "Top Secret" memos, the CIA used the water board "at least 83 times during August 2002 in the interrogation of Zubaydah."

Following the release of the documents, Kiriakou said: "When I spoke to ABC News in December 2007 I was aware of Abu Zubaydah being water boarded on one occasion. It was after this one occasion that he revealed information related to a planned terrorist attack. As I said in the original interview, my information was second-hand. I never participated in the use of enhanced techniques on Abu Zubaydah or on any other prisoner, nor did I witness the use of such techniques."

(Editor's Note on Interview Transcripts: Material from this transcript may not be used without crediting ABC News in each instance of use. In all cases, use must be limited to 250 words or less without the explicit permission of ABC News.)

Click Here for Part One of the Transcript with John Kiriakou.

Click Here for Part Two of the Transcript with John Kiriakou.

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 1

The Capture of Abu Zubaydah

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 2

Zubaydah says he had nothing against the United States.

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 3

Zubaydah said 9/11 was supposed to be a wake-up call to the U.S.

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 4

Zubaydah: "I would kill every American and Jew I could get my hands on."

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 5

Is Waterboarding Torture?

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 6

Waterboarding: Not Something Pretty to Watch

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 7

Enhanced Techniques: Sleep deprivation was effective, Kiriakou says.

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 8

Abu Zubaydah was completely cooperative.

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 9

Al Qaeda is always planning another major attack, Kiriakou says.

CIA Agent Speaks Out, Part 10

Waterboarding, right now, is unnecessary, Kiriakou says.

(Editor's Note for Video: Material from this video transcript may not be used without crediting ABC News in each instance of use. In all cases, use must be limited to one minute or less without the explicit permission of ABC News.)

This post has been updated.

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