WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The CIA asked the Justice Department to investigate whether former operative John Kiriakou illegally disclosed classified information when he talked about the waterboarding of a terrorism suspect, government officials say.
Ex-CIA agent John Kiriakou says he underwent waterboarding in training and cracked in a few seconds.
Kiriakou spoke last week with several news organizations, including CNN, after the CIA disclosed that videotapes of certain interrogations were destroyed in 2005.
That revelation has prompted new calls for investigations on Capitol Hill.
The Bush administration appeared in U.S. District Court on Friday to answer a judge's questions about the tapes' destruction.
Speaking to CNN last week, Kiriakou said that U.S. interrogators drew valuable information from al Qaeda captive Abu Zubayda by "waterboarding" him. But Kiriakou said the procedure amounts to torture and should be stopped.
Waterboarding involves pouring a stream of water onto the cellophane-covered face of a suspect to induce the sensation of drowning, Kiriakou said. Watch how a suspect is waterboarded »
Kiriakou told CNN he was unaware that CIA interrogations were being taped, but that the tapes should have been kept "as a matter of historical record."
Kiriakou's attorney Mark Zaid told CNN that the referral of the case to the Justice Department is standard procedure.
"A criminal referral from the CIA would be both expected and normal under the circumstances," Zaid said in a written statement. "It is a routine act that the CIA undertakes even when they know no violation has occurred."
Zaid added that the question is whether the Justice Department will proceed, and that such a decision "must be measured carefully."
"Doing so will unlock a Pandora's box that will place a spotlight on the information in question as to the lawfulness of the alleged conduct and the activities of those involved." he said.
"There would also exist a challenge regarding whether Mr. Kiriakou was being targeted for exercising his First Amendment rights."
CIA officers who leave the agency are required to sign documents promising never to divulge classified information. Written comments are cleared by an agency review board before publication, and unscripted oral comments -- such as television interviews -- are referred to the Justice Department after the fact.
About one case a week is referred to the Justice Department, and an investigation could take months to complete, a source in the intelligence community said.
For private citizens found to be in violation of the secrecy standard, penalties can range from loss of security clearances to criminal prosecution leading to jail time.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the department has no comment on the Kiriakou matter, and routinely refuses comment on whether another agency has referred a case.
Kiriakou said he was not present when other agents used the waterboarding technique on Abu Zubayda, but that he was told the al Qaeda suspect lasted 30 or 35 seconds.
Kiriakou said he himself was subjected to the treatment during his training, and lasted about five seconds before having to stop. E-mail to a friend
CNN's Kelli Arena contributed to this report.