WASHINGTON — Outgoing CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said Thursday that the most pressing issues facing his successor include Iran's nuclear ambitions and surging violence in Mexico -- but not the war in Iraq.
Hayden also defended the agency's use of harsh interrogation methods and said he had advised the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama against going too far in dismantling the agency's controversial counter-terrorism programs.
"These techniques worked," Hayden said of the agency's interrogation program during a farewell session with reporters who cover the CIA.
"One needs to be very careful" about eliminating CIA authorities, he said, because "if you create barriers to doing things . . . there's no wink, no nod, no secret handshake. We won't do it."
Hayden's spirited defense of the agency came on the same day that Eric H. Holder Jr., Obama's nominee to serve as the next attorney general, testified on Capitol Hill that waterboarding, an interrogation method used by the CIA, amounted to torture.
Hayden is widely credited with restoring stability and morale during more than two years as CIA director. But his ardent defense of the agency's activities may help explain why he was not asked by Obama to stay in the job.
Hayden is also tied to other Bush administration controversies. As the head of the National Security Agency after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was an architect of the warrantless wiretapping operation.
Hayden won a measure of vindication with the release of a court ruling Thursday that supported the administration's right to compel U.S. telecommunications companies to cooperate with the eavesdropping effort.
"My reaction?" Hayden said Thursday, referring to the ruling. "Duh."
Obama's nominee to serve as the next CIA director, former California lawmaker Leon E. Panetta, is expected to rein in an array of agency activities, including its use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.
Hayden noted that the agency had stopped the use of waterboarding more than five years ago, but he argued that the CIA should not be bound by the same restrictive interrogation rules as the U.S. Army.
Responding to critics who contend that harsh interrogation methods produce faulty intelligence, Hayden said that interrogations of key Al Qaeda figures accounted for the bulk of the United States' understanding of the terrorist network and led to a series of successful operations around the globe.
"Do not allow others to say it didn't work," Hayden said. "It worked."
Hayden said the situation in Iraq has improved so much that the war there is no longer a major drain of agency resources or attention. Instead, he said, the most pressing national security threat remains Al Qaeda.
Because of missile strikes by CIA drones, the tribal belt of Pakistan "is neither safe nor a haven" for Al Qaeda leadership, Hayden said. But he cited the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden as among the chief disappointments of his tenure.
Iran's leaders are "getting close to a decision point" on the country's nuclear program, Hayden said, because the Shiite Muslim nation is paying such a heavy diplomatic and financial cost for its efforts to stockpile enriched uranium. That cost burden has grown with falling oil prices, Hayden said.
The outgoing CIA chief also sounded a new alarm about the growing drug violence in Mexico, and indicated that U.S. intelligence officials have made new efforts to form counter-narcotics partnerships with the Mexican government.
Overall, Hayden said, Panetta will inherit an agency that has made strides in hiring case officers from more diverse backgrounds and expanding the number of employees fluent in Arabic and other crucial languages.
Hayden indicated he has plans to write and speak, but said he would have welcomed a chance to stay at the CIA. "I certainly would have considered [staying] if asked," he said.