By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush authorized the CIA to give its most detailed public account of its use of a widely condemned interrogation technique known as waterboarding, the White House said on Wednesday.
CIA Director Michael Hayden testified before Congress on Tuesday that government interrogators used waterboarding, often described as simulated drowning, on three suspects captured after the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001.
Hayden's admission, the first time a U.S. official publicly disclosed the number of people subjected to waterboarding and named them, drew calls for a criminal investigation. Critics worldwide condemn waterboarding as torture, but the Bush administration has refused to define it as such.
"The president authorized Gen. Hayden to say what he said in the testimony yesterday," White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters.
Bush's decision to allow testimony on waterboarding, a major shift from his policy of keeping it under wraps, was prompted by heated public debate and a consensus in the administration on the need "to be very clear about how those techniques were used and what the benefits were," Fratto said.
Hayden told the Senate Intelligence Committee that waterboarding was used on suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and senior al Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
He said waterboarding has not been used in five years, though U.S. officials say it could potentially be revived if the president and the attorney general authorize it.
"It is dependent on the circumstances," Fratto said.
But a senior intelligence official said earlier it was unclear whether the CIA could legally use waterboarding again, given changes in U.S. law.
"REALITIES HAVE CHANGED"
Hayden testified that at the time waterboarding was used it was believed that "additional catastrophic attacks against the homeland were imminent" and the CIA had limited intelligence on al Qaeda. "Those two realities have changed," he said.
Congress is considering banning waterboarding, a move opposed by the Bush administration, which insists it neither uses nor condones torture.
"Waterboarding is torture, and torture is a crime," Human Rights Watch said in response to Hayden's testimony.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and judiciary committee member, demanded that Attorney General Michael Mukasey investigate the CIA waterboarding and vowed to delay the nomination for Mukasey's deputy until the attorney general responds to that and other issues.
Defending the harsh interrogations, Hayden told reporters on Tuesday the questioning of Mohammed and Zubaydah accounted for one-quarter of human intelligence reports on al Qaeda from the time of their capture in 2002 and 2003 until they were delivered to Guantanamo Bay prison in 2006. But some analysts have questioned Mohammed's credibility under interrogation. (Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen; editing by Stuart Grudgings)