WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General Michael Mukasey on Tuesday ruled out declaring openly whether he believes the interrogation technique known as waterboarding constitutes torture.
Michael Mukasey says reasonable people can disagree about the legality of waterboarding.
"Any answer I give could have the effect of articulating publicly -- and to our adversaries -- the limits and contours of generally worded laws that define the limits of a highly classified interrogation program," Mukasey said.
He made the comments on the eve of an expected confrontation over torture issues with Democrats at a Senate hearing.
In a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mukasey confirmed for the first time that he had been thoroughly briefed on the issue.
Waterboarding is not currently being used by the CIA to interrogate suspected al Qaeda members, Mukasey said.
He added that he has concluded the "limited set of methods" now being used by the CIA in prisoner interrogations are legal.
"I have been authorized to disclose publicly that waterboarding is not among those methods," Mukasey told Leahy. "I understand the strong interest in this question but I do not think it would be responsible for me, as attorney general, to provide an answer."
Leahy issued a brief response expressing dissatisfaction.
"This last-minute response from the attorney general echoes what other administration officials have said about the use of waterboarding. It does not, however, answer the critical questions we have been asking about its legality," Leahy said. "Attorney General Mukasey knows that this will not end the matter and expects to be asked serious questions at the hearing tomorrow."
Mukasey said reasonable people can disagree about the legality of waterboarding, an interrogation technique in that simulates drowning.
"There are some circumstances where current law would appear clearly to prohibit the use of waterboarding. Other circumstances would present a far closer question," Mukasey said.
The attorney general, now in his third month of service, acknowledged his decision not to make a clear declaration will make his appearance before the committee more difficult.
"But it is my job as attorney general to do what I believe the law requires, and what is best for the country, not what makes my life easier," he said.
In his prepared testimony for Wednesday's hearing, released Monday, Mukasey did not mention waterboarding, and an aide said the attorney general wasn't ready to discuss it.
Mukasey's refusal to declare that waterboarding is torture prompted most Democrats to oppose his nomination. However, two Democrats, Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, broke with their party colleagues who control the committee and rescued the nomination in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mukasey was narrowly approved by the full Senate.
Mukasey's appearance before the panel Wednesday will be his first since the testy confirmation hearing.
He is expected to face a similar confrontation with House Democrats when he appears before their committee next week. E-mail to a friend