"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.
"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.
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."