WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ruled out the use of "waterboarding" as an interrogation technique for terrorism suspects on Monday, calling it a form of torture that the Obama administration could never condone.
Holder's declaration underscored President Barack Obama's break with the former Bush administration's anti-terrorist policies, which were condemned around the world by human-rights groups, civil liberties advocates and U.S. allies.
"Waterboarding is torture. My Justice Department will not justify it, will not rationalize it and will not condone it," Holder, who his heading a review of the treatment of terrorism suspects, said in a speech to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in Washington. His vow was greeted by applause.
At the same time, the Justice Department disclosed that the CIA had destroyed 92 videotapes of harsh interrogation sessions made in 2002 involving two suspects who it later said were subjected to "waterboarding". The CIA had acknowledged destroying tapes but had not said how many there were although there were believed to be hundreds of hours.
The Justice Department sets the legal guidance governing torture standards. Under former President George W. Bush, it was criticized as supporting a policy of cruelty -- including the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.
"Too often over the past decade the fight against terrorism has been viewed as a zero-sum battle with our tradition of civil liberties. Not only is that school of thought misguided, I fear that in actuality it has done us more harm than good," Holder said.
"We cannot ask other nations to stand by us in the pursuit of justice if we are not viewed as being in pursuit of that ideal ourselves," he said.
The CIA has acknowledged using on three terrorism suspects before discontinuing the practice in 2003.
Bush administration officials had refused to describe waterboarding as torture, and stopped short of categorically ruling out its use in the future.
Obama in January ordered that government agencies must abide by interrogation limitations in the Army Field Manual, which bans waterboarding.
But he also asked for a review of detention and interrogations practices, which some human rights critics said opened the door to approval of some harsh techniques.
"While many practices will be subject to receive under these executive orders, one in particular (waterboarding) will absolutely not be," Holder said.
Obama, who took office on January 20, reiterated in a speech to Congress last week his campaign promise to set a new course in counterterrorism policies. He also vowed "swift and certain justice for captured terrorists."
The Democratic president has also ordered the closure of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many foreign terrorism suspects have been held for years without charges or trial.
The tally of destroyed CIA interrogation tapes was disclosed in a Justice Department lawyer's letter to a U.S. federal judge in New York, who is hearing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking interrogation records.
The lawyer, who is defending the CIA in the case, said the agency intended to turn over additional records. The CIA declined to comment.
The Justice Department is also conducting a separate criminal investigation to see whether the CIA violated any laws when it destroyed the tapes in 2005.
Editing by David Storey