(Adds advance Mukasey testimony, comment in paragraphs 13-14)
By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - The United States used waterboarding in terrorism interrogations but no longer does, a former U.S. spy chief said in the Bush administration’s clearest confirmation of the technique’s use.
U.S. officials have been reluctant to acknowledge the CIA’s use of the simulated drowning technique, which human rights groups call an illegal form of torture.
The remarks by former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte in an interview with National Journal magazine come as senators are expected on Wednesday to grill Attorney General Michael Mukasey on a promised review of the legality of interrogation methods.
Asked by the magazine if debate over U.S. counterterrorism techniques was hampering its effort in a "war of ideas," Negroponte said, "We’ve taken steps to address the issue of interrogations, for instance, and waterboarding has not been used in years."
Negroponte served from 2005 to 2007 as the first director of national intelligence, a position created by President George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Negroponte is now deputy secretary of state. He spoke in an interview published in the National Journal’s Jan. 25 issue.
"It (waterboarding) wasn’t used when I was director of national intelligence, nor even a few years before that," he said. "I get concerned that we’re too retrospective and tend to look in the rearview mirror too often at things that happened four or even six years ago."
Negroponte’s remarks appear to confirm earlier reports that the CIA discontinued waterboarding in 2003, after using it on three "high-value" detainees. Vice President Dick Cheney once suggested waterboarding was "an important tool" used to interrogate Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Bush has regularly insisted that the United States does not torture but has declined to discuss what interrogation techniques are used. The CIA declined comment on Negroponte’s remarks.
Mukasey, who took office in November, promised in his Senate confirmation hearings to review U.S. interrogation methods. But he gave no sign in a meeting with reporters last week that he was ready to discuss the review at Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mukasey said it would focus on the existing interrogation program and the validity of department legal opinions regarding it — a hint that he might not review discontinued practices.
Mukasey made no mention of the review in his prepared testimony to the committee, released by the Justice Department on Monday.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, took note of the omission and vowed in a statement to ask Mukasey "whether he agrees that waterboarding is torture and illegal."
Mukasey was asked last week if he would answer senators’ inevitable questions about the issue, and replied, "I didn’t say that I wouldn’t answer it, I didn’t say that I would."
Mukasey on Jan. 2 ordered the Justice Department to investigate the CIA’s destruction of videotapes depicting the harsh interrogations of two terrorism suspects in 2002. At least one of the subjects, Abu Zubaydah, was believed to have been subjected to waterboarding.
Mukasey has rejected calls to appoint an independent counsel for the investigation. He has indicated investigators would be free to pursue evidence of illegal interrogation techniques in their probe, but department officials have said the focus remains on the tapes’ destruction. (Editing by Bill Trott)