The United States will persist with techniques of interrogating terror suspects that have saved “countless lives,” but will stop short of torture, the top US spymaster said Sunday.

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell refused to spell out whether methods such as the alleged practice of “waterboarding” were permitted under a new executive order of President George W. Bush.

“The United States does not engage in torture. This executive order spells it out,” McConnell said on NBC television.

But he indicated that the implied threat of torture had reaped dividends in extracting life-saving information from detainees.

“And so this is a program where we capture someone known to be a terrorist, we need information that they possess, and it has saved countless lives,” McConnell said, without detailing any plots that might have been broken up.

“Because they believe these techniques might involve torture and they don’t understand them, they tend to speak to us in a very candid way.”

Under his order issued Friday, Bush forbade the Central Intelligence Agency to torture suspected terrorists in its detention and interrogation program instituted after the September 11 attacks of 2001.

The order says that the CIA program, confirmed to exist in September 2006, must abide by the Geneva Conventions on wartime detainees and directs the CIA director to enforce that standard.

It lists no specific practices that are affected, or punishments for violations, and does not describe in any further detail a secret CIA prison network that has drawn outrage from US allies in Europe.

Human rights groups said the executive order left out critical details, such as controversial tactics that administration officials often describe as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Those are said by critics and former detainees to include waterboarding, or simulated drowning, sleep deprivation, prolonged captivity in “stress positions” and sexual humiliation.

Bush spokesman Tony Snow said the order barred “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” and “acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation, and cruel and inhuman treatment.”

McConnell said that he had been “quite frankly appalled” at the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US guards at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib jail. “My view was America risked losing the moral high ground.”

But that was not a program administered by the CIA, and it was “not the program that the president approved in the recent executive order.”

Fewer than 100 people have been subject to enhanced interrogations, and they were kept under medical supervision and “not abused in any way,” McConnell added.

However, Human Rights Watch slammed Bush’s new order as “contrary to the Geneva Conventions” because it essentially affirmed CIA secret detentions, a program which is “illegal to its core,” according to a statement.

“The key aspect of this is all the parts that aren’t said,” added Jennifer Daskal, HRW senior counter-terrorism counsel, who charged that the order allowed “a system of incommunicado detention to continue, with the blessing of the president.”

“What we have here is an administration basically reciting a number of legal principles and saying ‘trust us.’ And that’s hard to take from an administration that refuses to renounce waterboarding,” she said.

CIA director Michael Hayden told employees in a statement that the order was necessary to ensure that detentions and interrogations were in step with recent US Supreme Court rulings.

“Simply put, the information developed by our program has been irreplaceable,” he also said.

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