The director of the CIA failed on Tuesday to quell anger in Congress over the US spy agency's destruction of videos allegedly depicting the torture of terror suspects, as a former interrogator told media that detainees underwent waterboarding.
CIA chief Michael Hayden was grilled behind closed doors by the Senate Intelligence Committee about his revelation last week that the tapes were destroyed in 2005 -- just when Congress was investigating allegations of US abuse of detainees.
After the hearing, Hayden said he was unable to provide all the facts about the episode since it occurred before he took over the Central Intelligence Agency in 2006. He said he promised the committee to provide witnesses that could answer their questions.
With the White House insisting that the United States does not practice torture, Hayden will face more tough questioning on Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, John Rockefeller, told reporters he planned to call to testify in the next few days CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, CIA Inspector General John Helgerson and probably also Jose Rodriguez, the ex-chief of the CIA's clandestine service who reportedly made the decision to dispose of the tapes.
Meanwhile in a separate case on Tuesday a federal appeals court ordered the US government to preserve evidence related to claims by Guantanamo inmate Majid Khan that he was tortured while in CIA detention.
The preliminary order said the government had to protect any evidence as it weighed assertions by Khan, a Pakistani and legal US resident of Baltimore, that he was held in secret and tortured for three years by the spy agency before he was moved to Guantanamo in 2006.
The White House reiterated, however, that the United States does not practice torture.
"I can say that any interrogations have been legal and that they have been fully briefed to the United States Congress," said spokeswoman Dana Perino when pressed by reporters to address the newest revelations.
"I am saying that the United States does not torture," she added.
The affair put the Bush administration on the defensive again over its treatment of suspects in the "war on terror" launched in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Democrats expressed doubt and anger over the administration's explanations of the 2005 destruction of the interrogation videos.
"This latest news of destroyed tapes raises far more questions than we have answers," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday ahead of the hearing.
"Who was responsible for destroying the tapes? Was something being covered up? The possibility of obstruction of justice is very real," he said.
Representative Jane Harman said the timing of the tapes' destruction raised grave questions about a possible cover-up.
"My first reaction is that it was a very bad decision and there will not be a way to explain it away," Harman told PBS television on Tuesday.
"2005 was a time when both Intelligence Committees were looking at the subject of interrogations policy ... And it was a time when several courts -- federal courts -- were asking for all relevant information from our intelligence community with respect to interrogations," she said.
The Justice Department and the CIA's internal watchdog have opened a preliminary inquiry into the affair amid expectations a full-blown investigation will follow.
The tapes reportedly show harsh interrogation methods, including "waterboarding," a form of simulated drowning that human rights groups, lawmakers and a former CIA employee describe as torture.
Retired agent John Kiriakou, who led a CIA team that captured and interrogated Al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, said using the "waterboarding" technique was torture, but was necessary and yielded crucial information.
"I have no doubt that the information gleaned from Abu Zubaydah stopped terror attacks and saved lives," he told CNN news on Tuesday.
The technique involves covering a suspect's mouth with material and pouring water over it, prompting a choking sensation that feels like drowning. Kiriakou said the method broke Zubaydah in about 30 seconds.
Hayden has denied the use of torture and said the tapes, intended as an internal check on how interrogations were carried out, were destroyed to prevent any leak that could identify and endanger CIA agents.
Kiriakou told NBC news Tuesday that the decision to use waterboarding "was made at the White House with concurrence from the National Security Council and Justice Department."