The controversial interrogation technique known as waterboarding, in which a suspect has water poured over his mouth and nose to stimulate a drowning reflex, has been banned by CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden, current and former CIA officials tell ABCNews.com. (Image above is an ABC News graphic.)
The officials say Hayden made the decision at the recommendation of his deputy, Steve Kappes, and received approval from the White House to remove waterboarding from the list of approved interrogation techniques first authorized by a presidential finding in 2002.
The officials say the decision was made sometime last year but has never been publicly disclosed.THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS
One U.S. intelligence official said, "It would be wrong to assume that the program of the past moved into the future unchanged."
A CIA spokesman said, as a matter of policy, he would decline to comment on interrogation techniques, "which have been and continue to be lawful," he said.
The practice of waterboarding has been branded as "torture" by human rights groups and a number of leading U.S. officials, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., because it amounted to a "mock execution."
Today, in New Hampshire, Sen. McCain told ABC News, "I have sought that result for years. Waterboarding is a form of torture. And I'm convinced that this will not only help us in our interrogation techniques, but it will also be helpful for our image in the world."
While new legislation reportedly gave the CIA the leeway to use waterboarding, current and former CIA officials said Gen. Hayden decided to take it off the list of about six "enhanced interrogation techniques."
While welcoming the move, some critics say the CIA did not go far enough.
"I can say it's a good thing, but the fact remains that the entire program is illegal," John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told ABCNews.com.
As a result of the decision, officials say, the most extreme techniques left available to CIA interrogators would be what is termed "longtime standing," which includes exhaustion and sleep deprivation with prisoners forced to stand, handcuffed with their feet shackled to the floor.
"It is a very severe form of torture which causes tremendous psychic toll to people," said Sifton.
It is believed that waterboarding was used on fewer than five "high-value" terrorist subjects, and had not been used for three to four years.
Its most effective use, say current and former CIA officials, was in breaking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, who subsequently confessed to a number of ongoing plots against the United States.
A senior CIA official said KSM later admitted it was only because of the waterboarding that he talked.
Ultimately, KSM took responsibility for the 9/ll attacks and virtually all other al Qaeda terror strikes, including the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
"KSM lasted the longest under waterboarding, about a minute and a half, but once he broke, it never had to be used again," said a former CIA official familiar with KSM's case.
Kappes' role at the CIA puts him in charge of day-to-day CIA operations.
A career intelligence officer, he left the CIA in disagreement with the leadership of Porter Goss, the former Republican congressman, who George Bush chose to replace George Tenet in 2004.
When Goss in turn was replaced in May 2006 by Gen. Hayden as director of Central Intelligence, he moved quickly to get Kappes to return.