Senate Democrats accused Attorney General Michael Mukasey of ducking questions Wednesday on whether waterboarding is torture despite his promise last year to study whether it is illegal.
The issue briefly stalled Mukasey's confirmation last fall until he assured Senate Democrats he would review the legality of the harsh interrogation tactic and report back.
Waterboarding involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning.
Ultimately, however, Mukasey said Wednesday he would not rule on whether waterboarding is a form of illegal torture because it is not part of the current interrogation methods used by the CIA on terror suspects. Despite having called waterboarding personally repugnant, Mukasey's non-answer angered Democrats who said the attorney general should be able to address a legal question.
"I think failure to say something probably puts some of our people in more danger than not," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee's chairman.
"It's like you're opposed to stealing but not quite sure that bank robbery would qualify," retorted Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Mukasey, in his trademark monotone, did not appear rattled. He said he has concluded that current methods used by the CIA to interrogate terror suspects are lawful and that the spy agency is not using waterboarding on its prisoners.
Beyond that, Mukasey said he would not discuss whether he thinks waterboarding is illegal.
"Given that waterboarding is not part of the current program, and may never be added to the program, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to pass definitive judgment on the technique's legality," Mukasey said in his first appearance before the committee since being sworn in Nov. 9.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama rallied to Mukasey's defense, calling it "an embarrassment" that the questioning could give the impression that U.S. interrogators frequently engage in waterboarding.
"That is not true," Sessions said.
Waterboarding has happened in three known interrogations of al-Qaida members since 2001.
At his confirmation hearings in October, Mukasey refused to define waterboarding as torture because he was unfamiliar with the classified Justice Department memos describing the process and legal arguments surrounding it. He was willing to risk losing confirmation over his answer on waterboarding, according to a knowledgeable committee official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The CIA and the Pentagon banned waterboarding in 2006. Critics want the Justice Department to join other nations and outlaw waterboarding as illegal. But U.S. intelligence officials fear that doing so could make government interrogators _ including those from the CIA _ vulnerable to retroactive criminal charges or civil lawsuits.
Waterboarding is at the heart of a Justice Department criminal investigation over whether the CIA illegally or otherwise improperly destroyed videotapes in 2005 of two terror suspects being interrogated. The tapes showed harsh interrogations, including possible waterboarding, of suspected terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in 2002, when both suspects were held in secret CIA prisons overseas. The tapes were destroyed as intelligence officials debated whether waterboarding should be declared illegal.