By CNN Sr. National Security Producer Pam Benson
Some Republican presidential candidates want to put controversial harsh interrogation techniques back into the CIA toolbox, but whether the agency would ever use them again is very much in doubt.
During the GOP debate this weekend, several candidates said they supported reinstating the use of waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, and is seen by many as a form of torture.
CNN spoke to more than a half dozen current and former intelligence officials who all believe waterboarding was effective in getting critical information from suspected terrorist detainees at the time it was used, but they believe CIA officers today would be very reluctant to use the technique even it was authorized by all the appropriate officials.
As Robert Grenier, the former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center put it, "people in CIA would be very, very wary about going down this road under circumstances where it is not at all clear there is a political consensus behind the use of those sort of aggressive measures."
Another official said: "When you have years-long investigations into past practices, it's unlikely that you want to spend a minute engaged in them."
The administration of former President George W. Bush secretly approved the CIA's use of coercive interrogation techniques in the summer of 2002 after the agency said it needed to take additional measures to secure information about possible future terrorist attacks from uncooperative detainees. The enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) included, among other things, stress positions, loud noise and waterboarding. The CIA also set up secret prisons to hold and interrogate the detainees.
Newspaper reports exposed the CIA's detention and interrogation program, setting off a firestorm of debate about the legality of the program and whether some of the techniques constitute torture.
When the administration of President Barack Obama took office, it opposed the use of EITs by the CIA and mandated that interrogations be carried out following the guidelines of the Army Field Manual. An inter-agency High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, known as HIG, was set up to deploy teams to participate in or support the questioning of suspected terrorists who were in custody in the United States or overseas.
The Obama administration also made public classified CIA documents that provided detailed descriptions of harsh interrogations used against CIA detainees, and the Attorney General launched an investigation into those activities.
During the Republican debate on Saturday, Rep. Michele Bachmann said she would be willing to once again allow waterboarding on suspected terrorists.
"I think it was very effective. It gained information for our country," she said, a judgment shared by fellow presidential candidates, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Herman Cain said he would follow the judgment of military leaders to determine what is torture. When specifically asked about waterboarding suspected terrorists, he responded: "I would return to that policy. I don't see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique."
But that position runs counter to the military's position. During recent congressional testimony, CIA Director David Petraeus pointed out that as the commanding general in Iraq, Afghanistan and at U.S. Central Command he had overseen the detention of more detainees than any other person in uniform. The retired general left no doubt where he stands on what is acceptable, not just for the military, but also the CIA.
"It was on my watch that we developed the Army Field Manual that now, based on an executive order, governs how interrogations are conducted ... The Army Field Manual techniques do work," said Petraeus.
A current U.S. official declined to comment on the hypothetical situation raised during the presidential debate, but said the current approach is working well.
John Rizzo was the CIA's senior lawyer during the period when the Bush administration developed the legal arguments in support of the then secret detentions and harsh interrogations. He did not object to the administration's findings.
Rizzo would not comment for this story, but last May, in a panel discussion on the topic, he said: "For the Agency to embark upon an interrogation program and take the lead in an interrogation and detention program, I think, first of all, if I was still there, I'd advise my colleagues against doing that given the experience in the past. If there was a national will, an administration will to involve the CIA directly in an admittedly risky, admittedly aggressive interrogation, the least the men and women in the agency deserve is consistency - tell them what they're doing, give them adequate legal cover to do it and for gods sake, don't change your mind 6-7 years down the road."
Several of the former intelligence officials wondered if the question is moot.
"Since we're seldom capturing people of importance these days, we may be past the period that this is ever likely to come up again," said one former official.
Former CIA Counterterrorism Center Director Grenier said many of the senior terrorists of interest to the United States are in areas of Yemen and Pakistan, beyond the ability of those nations to capture.
"That is why we are seeing so many senior terrorists who now disappear mysteriously in a puff of smoke, because there is no other effective way of getting at them," said Grenier, an oblique reference to the drone missile strikes that have killed hundreds of suspected terrorists. And Grenier also said the CIA has learned a lot over the years.
"I cannot imagine the CIA would ever want to employ waterboarding again simply because they gained sufficient expertise, that they no longer thought it was necessary," he said.
Even so, other officials believe you can never say never.
"You look at Iran right now, you look at North Korea and the scenarios that are all too real about attacks in the homeland, weapons of mass destruction, when that comes into play, those are game changers. Those circumstances can compel leaders and (CIA) operatives to do things that they wouldn't do a week ago," said yet another former senior intelligence official.
But this official said the question of what interrogation techniques are used in the future go beyond one person's opinion.
"The question is do we want to use it and it's not something the CIA or the president or the president-elect or some presidential candidate I believe can state without having a larger debate. It depends on circumstances."
Former CIA Director Mike Hayden, who advises the Mitt Romney campaign, agrees. "You can't answer this in the hypothetical. You can't because of changing circumstances. This was taken off the table in the Bush administration. Whatever you do in the future must be effective, and depends on the totality of the circumstances."