The US head of intelligence has said that the practice of "waterboarding" in interrogations "would be torture" if the subject was forced to take water into his lungs.But Mike McConnell, in a magazine interview, declined for legal reasons to say whether it categorically should be considered torture.
Waterboarding, as McConnell described it, involves a prisoner being strapped down with a flannel over his face as water is dripped into his nose.
"If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can't imagine how painful! Whether it's torture by anybody else's definition, for me it would be torture," McConnell told the New Yorker in a 16,000-word article published yesterday.
"If it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it," added McConnell, the US director of national intelligence.
His comments came as the House Intelligence committee investigates the CIA's destruction of videotaped interrogations of two al-Qaida suspects. The tapes were made in 2002 and destroyed three years later over fears they could be leaked. They depicted the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques against two of three men known to have faced waterboarding by the CIA.
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McConnell said the legal test for torture should be "pretty simple".
"Is it excruciatingly painful to the point of forcing someone to say something because of the pain?" he said.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto refused comment on waterboarding: "We don't talk about interrogation techniques. And we are not going to respond to every little thing that shows up in the press."
The attorney general, Michael Mukasey, has declined to rule on whether waterboarding is torture.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008