Gen. David H. Petraeus addresses the Senate Intelligence Committee during… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — Gen. David H. Petraeus, President Obama's choice to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told senators Thursday that the U.S. should consider a policy for using special interrogation techniques when a detainee is withholding information that is immediately needed to save lives.
In the vast majority of cases, Petraeus said, the "humane" questioning standards mandated by the U.S. Army Field Manual are sufficient to persuade detainees to talk. But though he did not use the word torture, Petraeus said "there should be discussion … by policymakers and by Congress" about something "more than the normal techniques."
Petraeus, speaking at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, described an example of a detainee who knows how to disarm a nuclear device set to explode under the Empire State Building. Congress may want to give the president the option of taking extraordinary measures to extract that information, he said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) endorsed the idea.
"I look forward to working with you on this ticking time bomb scenario," said McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "I think the person responsible should be the president of the United States. … I do agree with you."
The comments were noteworthy because they came from two men opposed to interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that were used by the CIA in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Obama banned the techniques when he took office.
Petraeus, who said he opposed torture generally because "it's the right thing to do," expressed his preference for capturing rather than killing Al Qaeda militants, while pointing out that the CIA currently neither holds nor interrogates detainees.
In response to a question, Petraeus argued that the U.S. needed a place to hold detainees accused of terrorism, despite Obama's stated intention to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
"This is a very, very serious issue for our country, and it's one that policymakers and Congress need to address on an expeditious basis," Petraeus said.
Petraeus, who would become the first CIA director to arrive directly after serving as the top commander in a war, would be called upon to offer objective views of the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The general sought to dispel concerns about having to, as he put it, "grade my own work."
"Clearly I have views on the efforts in which I have been engaged," he said. "However … when I am in the Situation Room with the president, I will strive to represent the agency's position."
Petraeus also said he wanted to make sure the agency wasn't "totally captured" by the war against Al Qaeda. China, weapons proliferation and the next developments in the "Arab Spring" should also be intelligence priorities, he said, calling cyber-threats "of particular note."
"I share the concerns that many hold about cyber-security," he said.
Petraeus, who will resign from the military before joining the CIA, said he had no plans to bring his own "brain trust" to the agency. He will rely on career agency employees to advise him, he said.
"I will, in short, get out of my vehicle alone on the day I report to Langley," he said.
A vote on his nomination is expected before July 4.