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"It's easy to point to intelligence failures and perceived intelligence failures, but the public has to understand how hard people are working to make them safe," he said.
Kiriakou said he first spoke to Abu Zubaida in a Pakistani military hospital. Abu Zubaida was recovering from wounds he suffered in the gun battle that led to his capture.
After he came out of a coma, Abu Zubaida was initially talkative, holding long conversations with Kiriakou from his hospital bed. The two discussed personal matters that ranged from religion to Abu Zubaida's private regret about having never married or fathered children.
Kiriakou said he repeatedly counseled Abu Zubaida to provide details about al-Qaeda's infrastructure, leadership and plans. Abu Zubaida refused and eventually became more defiant.
He was later flown to a secret CIA prison, where he was subjected to harsher methods, including waterboarding, Kiriakou said. Kiriakou said he made a final appeal to Abu Zubaida shortly before the waterboarding began.
"You have one more opportunity to cooperate. My guys are telling me that you're being a jerk," Kiriakou recalled telling Abu Zubaida. His reply, according to Kiriakou: "They're being jerks, too."
Kiriakou said he now has mixed feelings about the use of waterboarding. He said that he thinks the technique provided a crucial break to the CIA and probably helped prevent attacks, but that he is now convinced that waterboarding is torture, and "Americans are better than that."
"Maybe that's inconsistent, but that's how I feel," he said. "It was an ugly little episode that was perhaps necessary at that time. But we've moved beyond that."
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Michael Abramowitz and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.