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Ashcroft defends waterboarding before House panel

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  • Ex-attorney general says waterboarding more effective than other techniques
  • John Ashcroft says he opposes torture but says waterboarding isn't torture
  • Congress failed to override President Bush's veto of bill to ban waterboarding
  • Waterboarding is an interrogation technique that simulates drowning
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The controversial interrogation technique of waterboarding has served a "valuable" purpose and does not constitute torture, former Attorney General John Ashcroft told a House committee Thursday.

John Ashcroft says waterboarding yielded more valuable information than other interrogation techniques.

Testifying on the Bush administration's interrogation rules before the House Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft defended the technique while answering a question from Rep. Howard Coble, R-North Carolina.

"Waterboarding, as we all know, is a controversial issue. Do you think it served a beneficial purpose?" the congressman asked.

"The reports that I have heard, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, indicate that they were very valuable," Ashcroft said, adding that CIA Director George Tenet indicated the "value of the information received from the use of enhanced interrogation techniques -- I don't know whether he was saying waterboarding or not, but assume that he was for a moment -- the value of that information exceeded the value of information that was received from all other sources."

Waterboarding is a technique designed to simulate drowning. The agency has acknowledged using it on terror suspects. Some critics regard it as torture; others say it is a harsh interrogation technique, and proponents say it is a useful tool in the war on terror.

Ashcroft, who stated his opposition to torture, said the Justice Department has determined that waterboarding -- as defined and described by the CIA -- doesn't constitute torture.

"I believe a report of waterboarding would be serious, but I do not believe it would define torture," Ashcroft said, responding to questions from Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California.

He added, "the Department of Justice has on a consistent basis over the last half-dozen years or so, over and over again in its evaluations, come to the conclusion that under the law in existence during my time as attorney general, waterboarding did not constitute torture."

Waters asked Ashcroft whether such techniques would be regarded as "totally unacceptable and even criminal" if they were used on American soldiers.

"Well, my subscription to these memos, and my belief that the law provides the basis for these memos persisted even in the presence of my son serving two tours of duty overseas in the Gulf area as a member of our armed forces," Ashcroft said.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, asked Ashcroft how many times waterboarding had been performed. Ashcroft said that it's his "understanding it has been done three times" as part of an "interrogation process." He said he thinks the subjects of the interrogations "would be labeled as high-valued detainees."

The House of Representatives failed to muster the two-thirds majority it needed this year to override President Bush's veto of a bill that would have banned certain CIA interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.

The White House applauded the vote, saying an override "would have diminished the intelligence community's ability to protect our nation."

The bill was an effort to curtail the CIA's ability to use harsh interrogation techniques that the military and other law enforcement agencies ban. It would have restricted U.S. interrogators to techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual.

The White House said the restriction "would have eliminated the legal alternative procedures in place in the CIA program to question the world's most dangerous and violent terrorists."

All About John AshcroftU.S. House Committee on the Judiciary

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