WASHINGTON U.S. intelligence chief Mike McConnell said in a magazine interview that waterboarding would be torture if it was used against him personally, but stopped short of condemning the controversial interrogation technique.
McConnell, Director of National Intelligence, was quoted in the New Yorker edition released on Sunday as defining torture as "something that would cause excruciating pain."
Asked if waterboarding -- the practice of covering a person's face with a cloth and then dripping water on it to bring on a feeling of drowning -- fit that definition, McConnell said that for him personally, it would.
"If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can't imagine how painful!" McConnell said in the article. "Whether it's torture by anybody else's definition, for me it would be torture."
But he rejected a suggestion that he personally condemned the practice.
The reputation of the United States has been badly tarnished internationally by its harsh treatment of prisoners detained in President George W. Bush's war against terrorism, particularly those held at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the Guantanamo naval base on Cuba.
U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has declined to rule on whether waterboarding is torture.
"You can do waterboarding lots of ways ... I assume you can get to the point that a person is actually drowning," McConnell said in the New Yorker article, which paraphrased him as agreeing that this would certainly be torture.
McConnell said he could not be more specific because "if it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it."
When asked whether the United States had gotten meaningful information through torture, McConnell denied the United States uses torture, then added that "tons" of meaningful information had been received using certain interrogation techniques: "Does it save lives? Tons!"
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield noted this assertion in an e-mailed statement and defended the CIA's actions.
"The information developed through the detention and interrogation program has been irreplaceable, and the program has operated in strict accord with American law," Mansfield said. "If the CIA had not stepped forward to hold and interrogate hardened terrorists, people would be right to ask why. Our country is safer for it."
The New Yorker article was published as the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives investigates the CIA's destruction of videotapes showing interrogations of al Qaeda suspects, at least two of whom are known to have been subjected to waterboarding.
The videotapes were made in 2002 and destroyed three years later out of fears they would leak.
Last month the Democratic-controlled House approved a bill that would ban the CIA from using harsh interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, that are not allowed by the military.
President Bush last year issued an executive order to allow the CIA to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" that go beyond the rules adopted by the U.S. Army. He has threatened to veto the bill passed by the House if it is also approved by the Senate.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)