A former CIA officer who participated in the capture and questioning of the first al-Qaida terrorist suspect to be waterboarded said Monday...

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WASHINGTON — A former CIA officer who participated in the capture and questioning of the first al-Qaida terrorist suspect to be waterboarded said Monday that the harsh technique provided an intelligence breakthrough that “probably saved lives,” but that he now regards the tactic as torture.

Abu Zubaydah, the first high-ranking al-Qaida member captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, broke in less than a minute after he was subjected to the technique and began providing interrogators with information that led to the disruption of several planned attacks, said John Kiriakou, who served as a CIA interrogator in Pakistan.

Zubaydah was one of two detainees whose interrogation was captured in videorecordings that the CIA later destroyed. The recent disclosure of the tapes’ destruction ignited a recent furor on Capitol Hill and allegations that the agency tried to hide evidence of illegal torture.

“It was like flipping a switch,” said Kiriakou, the first former CIA employee directly involved in the questioning of “high-value” al-Qaida detainees to speak publicly.

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Kiriakou said he did not witness Zubaydah’s waterboarding but was part of the interrogation team that questioned him in a hospital in Pakistan for weeks after his capture in 2002.

He described Zubaydah as ideologically zealous, defiant and uncooperative — until the day in midsummer when his captors strapped him to a board, wrapped his nose and mouth in cellophane and forced water into his throat in a technique that simulates drowning.

The waterboarding lasted about 35 seconds before Zubaydah broke down, according to Kiriakou, who said he was given a detailed description of the incident by fellow team members. The next day, Zubaydah told his captors he would tell them whatever they wanted, Kiriakou said.

Kiriakou’s remarks came a day before top CIA officials are to appear before a closed congressional hearing to account for the decision to destroy recordings of the interrogations of Zubaydah and another senior captive, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Last Thursday, CIA Director Michael Hayden announced the recordings were destroyed in 2005 to protect the identities of CIA employees who appear on them.

The recordings were destroyed despite orders from judges that required the government to preserve records related to its interrogation programs. The lawsuits were filed by captives at the Guantánamo Bay military prison who were contesting their detentions.

Also Monday, House intelligence-committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Tex., and ranking Republican Pete Hoekstra of Michigan announced the panel is launching its own investigation into the tapes’ destruction. Reyes and Hoekstra said Hayden’s assertion that the committee had been “properly notified” of the destruction “does not appear to be true.”

The Justice Department and the CIA inspector general’s office also have begun a preliminary inquiry into the tapes’ destruction. Members of the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks have said they were repeatedly told the CIA did not have videotapes of interrogations.

U.S. intelligence officials confirmed Kiriakou was a CIA employee involved in the capture and questioning of Zubaydah. Kiriakou left the agency in 2004 after 14 years and now works as a consultant for a private Washington-based firm.

After the hospital interviews bore no fruit, Zubaydah was flown to a secret CIA prison, where the interrogation duties fell to a team trained in aggressive tactics, including waterboarding. Shortly before the transfer, Kiriakou said he left Pakistan for Washington, where he said he continued to monitor the interrogation through classified cables and private communications with colleagues.

Kiriakou, whose account first appeared in a story on ABC News’ Web site, said he now has mixed feelings about the use of waterboarding.

He said that he thinks the technique provided a crucial break to the CIA and probably helped prevent attacks, but that he is now is convinced that waterboarding is torture, and “Americans are better than that.”

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