By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006
Vice President Cheney said this week that dunking terrorism suspects in water during questioning was a "no-brainer," prompting complaints from human rights advocates that he was endorsing the use of a controversial technique known as waterboarding on prisoners held by the United States.
In an interview Tuesday with Scott Hennen, a conservative radio show host from Fargo, N.D., Cheney agreed with Hennen's assertion that "a dunk in water" may yield valuable intelligence from terrorism suspects. He also referred to information gleaned from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the captured architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but stopped short of explicitly saying what techniques were used.
"Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" Hennen asked.
"Well, it's a no-brainer for me," Cheney said, "but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."
The comments underscore continuing uncertainty over precisely which techniques can be used legally during CIA interrogations of terrorism suspects. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers have said recent legislation that established ground rules for interrogations should effectively bar waterboarding and other methods that are viewed as violations of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. criminal law.
Bush administration officials have repeatedly declined to say which techniques they believe are permitted under the new law and have steadfastly declined to discuss methods used in the past.
Numerous sources have said that the CIA subjected Mohammed and other "high-value" terrorism suspects to waterboarding, a technique that gives the prisoner the sensation of drowning.
A Cheney spokeswoman said yesterday that he was not confirming the use of any specific interrogation techniques.
"He was talking about the interrogation program without torture," spokeswoman Lee Anne McBride said. "The vice president does not discuss any techniques or methods that may or may not have been used in questioning."
Congress passed legislation last month putting limits on interrogation techniques that can be used on prisoners declared to be "unlawful enemy combatants." Lawmakers largely left it to the executive branch to decide whether many techniques would be legal.
The U.S. Army revised its field manual last month to ban waterboarding and other techniques as "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" outlawed by the Geneva accords. Military officials said experience had shown that abusive techniques do not work in yielding reliable intelligence from prisoners.
John Sifton, a senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch, said Cheney's comments seem to both endorse waterboarding and suggest its use on Mohammed and other prisoners.
"I think the context is clear that he's agreeing that what the interviewer suggested -- dunking people in water to interrogate them -- is a no-brainer," Sifton said. "Basically, what the vice president did is inject ambiguity into a situation in which Congress and the military thinks there is no ambiguity."
Neal Sonnett, chairman of an American Bar Association task force on enemy combatants, said Cheney's comments were "a little equivocal" on details but clear in their overall meaning.
"It may be too much to characterize it as a direct admission," Sonnett said. "But he is certainly suggesting that he doesn't see anything wrong with waterboarding."
In waterboarding -- one of a number of drowning-simulation techniques that date to the Spanish Inquisition -- a prisoner is generally strapped down with his feet higher than his head. Water is then poured on his face while his nose and mouth are covered by a cloth. The technique produces an intense sensation of being close to suffocation and drowning, according to interrogation experts and human rights advocates.
The Khmer Rouge and other outlaw regimes have employed the method, and it has been condemned by many human rights and military lawyers as a clear example of illegal torture.
In 1947, the United States prosecuted a Japanese soldier for war crimes and sentenced him to 15 years hard labor for using the technique on a U.S. prisoner.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.