LANGLEY, Va. — Outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden vigorously defended on Thursday the agency's use of secret prisons and coercive interrogation methods on suspected al Qaida terrorists, saying they helped avert new terrorist attacks and were done "out of duty, not out of enthusiasm."
Hayden argued that the CIA detainee program shouldn't be subjected to a public investigation because the administration had obtained Justice Department legal opinions to support it and had informed members of Congress.
A public inquiry also would damage the careers of dedicated intelligence officers and the agency's espionage operations, he said.
"We are asked to do things routinely that no one else is asked to do, that no one else is allowed to do," Hayden said. "You can't do this to these people."
Never miss a local story.
The retired Air Force general cited as "appropriate" President-elect Barack Obama's comments on Sunday that the nation must move beyond the Bush years.
"I was very heartened by the president-elect's description of his approach," Hayden told reporters in a wood-paneled conference room at CIA headquarters, just outside Washington.
Hayden sat down for his final interview shortly after Attorney General nominee Eric Holder told his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing that he thought that waterboarding, an interrogation method that simulates drowning, is torture.
Many human and legal rights groups and some lawmakers are pressing Obama to support some kind of public inquiry, contending that waterboarding violated U.S. and international laws against torture.
The CIA's program is alleged to have led to the abductions of foreign terror suspects, some of whom were innocent, and critics charge that it's produced little valuable intelligence, damaged U.S. standing abroad and aided al Qaida's recruiting efforts.
While the Defense Department's detainee operations in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay have been detailed in a series of public reports, the CIA's program hasn't been subjected to an open inquiry, and the only details known have emerged as leaks to the news media.
Asked if he was concerned by Holder's view that waterboarding is torture, Hayden replied: "It's an uninteresting question to the Central Intelligence Agency."
"We don't do that. We haven't done it since March 2003, and we don't intend to do it," Hayden said. "What the agency has done in the past, what it is doing now, what it will do in the future is based on the best legal counsel it has at the time."
He reiterated that the CIA had held fewer than 100 al Qaida suspects in secret prisons, reportedly in Poland and Romania. A third of those detainees were subjected to coercive interrogation and three, including accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were water-boarded, he said.
In other cases, the CIA has delivered terrorism suspects to countries such as Egypt that use torture, but some of the intelligence those prisoners provided has proven to be false.
"This is an infinitely small fraction of what this agency does to keep America safe," Hayden said.
Hayden said the interrogations had provided vital information to the agency that helped avert terrorist attacks.
He declined, however, to detail the purported successes. Instead, he pointed to a Sept. 5, 2006, speech in which President George W. Bush asserted that "alternative" interrogation procedures used on Mohammed and al Qaida operative Abu Zubaidah had led to the capture of others who were responsible for the 9/11 plot.
"These techniques worked," Hayden said.
Obama has tapped Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman and Clinton White House chief of staff with little intelligence experience, to succeed Hayden, who became CIA director in May 2006 after heading the super-secret National Security Agency, which conducts electronic surveillance.
While Hayden was NSA director, the agency began eavesdropping on phone calls to and from suspected terrorists overseas without warrants.
On other issues, Hayden said that CIA operations against al Qaida had helped reduce the terrorist network's ability to use the tribal region on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as a refuge.
"It is my belief that the senior leadership of al Qaida today believes it (the tribal region) is neither safe nor a haven," he said, without acknowledging that a series of missile strikes along the border that have killed a number of top terrorists since last summer were launched by CIA-controlled drone aircraft.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY