WASHINGTON &

The CIA's waterboarding of a top al-Qaida figure was approved at the top levels of the U.S. government, a former CIA agent said today as agency director Gen. Michael Hayden prepared for questioning by congressional panels about the destruction of videotapes of terror suspect interrogations.




According to the former agent, waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah got him to talk in less than 35 seconds. The technique, which critics say is torture, probably disrupted "dozens" of planned al-Qaida attacks, said John Kiriakou, a leader of the team that captured Zubaydah, a major al-Qaida figure.




Kiriakou did not explain how he knew who approved the interrogation technique but said such approval comes from top officials.




"This isn't something done willy nilly. This isn't something where an agency officer just wakes up in the morning and decides he's going to carry out an enhanced technique on a prisoner," he said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show. "This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and Justice Department."




At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said the CIA interrogation program approved by the president is safe, tough, effective and legal. But she said that Hayden will not "talk about techniques and explain to the enemy what we are doing" during two days of questioning before closed sessions of the Senate and House intelligence panels.




"It's no secret that the president approved a lawful program in order to interrogate hardened terrorists," Perino said. "We do not torture. We also know that this program has saved lives by disrupting terrorist attacks."




Kiriakou said that each time CIA agents wished to use waterboarding or any other harsh interrogation technique, they had to present a "well-laid out, well-thought out reason" to top government officials. In Zubaydah's case, Kiriakou said the waterboarding had immediate effect.




"The next day, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate," Kiriakou said in an interview first broadcast Monday evening on ABC News' World News. "From that day on, he answered every question. The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."




Kiriakou said he did not know the interrogation of Zubaydah was being recorded by the CIA and did not know the tapes subsequently were destroyed.




"Like a lot of Americans, I'm involved in this internal, intellectual battle with myself weighing the idea that waterboarding may be torture versus the quality of information that we often get after using the waterboarding technique," Kiriakou, now retired from the CIA, told ABC News. "And I struggle with it."




He added: "What happens if we don't waterboard a person and we don't get that nugget of information and there's an attack. I would have trouble forgiving myself. ... At the time, I felt that waterboarding was something that we needed to do."




Waterboarding is a harsh interrogation technique that involves strapping down a prisoner, covering his mouth with plastic or cloth and pouring water over his face. The prisoner quickly begins to inhale water, causing the sensation of drowning.




Hayden told CIA employees last week that the CIA taped the interrogations of two alleged terrorists in 2002. He said the harsh questioning was carried out only after being "reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice and by other elements of the Executive Branch." Hayden said Congress was notified in 2003 both of the tapes' existence and the agency's intent to destroy them.




The CIA destroyed the tapes in November of 2005. Exactly when Congress was notified and in what detail is in dispute.




Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the CIA claims it told the committee of the tapes' destruction at a hearing in November 2006. Rockefeller said, however, that the hearing transcript found no mention of that subject.




The House committee first learned the tapes had been destroyed in March 2007, according to Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.




In last week's message, Hayden told CIA employees that "the leaders of our oversight committees in Congress were informed of the videos years ago and of the Agency's intention to dispose of the material. Our oversight committees also have been told that the videos were, in fact, destroyed."




But Reyes said Monday that Hayden's claim that Congress was properly notified "does not appear to be true."