President Barack Obama called simulated drowning a form of torture on Wednesday, and defended his decision to end a practice used against terrorism suspects by the Bush administration.
Obama said the process, known as waterboarding, violated American ideals and was not appropriate even if it made getting information from suspected enemies easier.
"Waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture," he told a news conference.
"That’s why I put an end to these practices."
Pressed on whether that meant former President George W. Bush’s administration had sanctioned torture, Obama said: "I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that … whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake."
Many experts say harsh interrogations lead to unreliable information because a person will say anything to stop them.
Obama said intelligence that may have resulted from the technique could have been elicited through other methods.
"We could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are," he said.
"In some cases it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy."
Obama said the policy shift had also deprived al Qaeda of a recruiting tool while strengthening relations with U.S. allies.
After Obama released four memos this month revealing the Bush administration’s legal justification for methods such as waterboarding, former Vice President Dick Cheney called for declassifying any memos showing that the techniques succeeded in producing valuable information.
The New York Times has reported that Dennis Blair, Obama’s national intelligence director, told colleagues in a private memo the harsh techniques yielded "high value information."
Obama said the memos that had not been declassified failed to answer the core questions — whether the information could have been elicited by other means and whether the country was safer as a result of the controversial methods being used.
"Ultimately I will be judged as commander-in-chief on how safe I’m keeping the American people," he said.
"So I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe. But I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking short cuts that undermine who we are."