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Cheney Defends 'Dunk in the Water' Remark
Many legal experts said it was reasonable to conclude that Cheney was referring to waterboarding, since it has been a widely debated U.S. interrogation technique that uses water to subject a suspect to the fear of drowning.
U.S. interrogation methods have been the focus of fierce debate since revelations of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan and the disclosure that the CIA ran a network of secret prisons outside the United States. Numerous sources have confirmed that the CIA used waterboarding in its interrogation of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other "high-value" prisoners.
Some lawmakers have said that they believe waterboarding is illegal under detainee legislation approved last month, but the Bush administration has declined to say what techniques it considers off-limits.
Asked yesterday about Cheney's Tuesday remarks, President Bush did not specifically address them. But he said: "This country doesn't torture. We're not going to torture. We will interrogate people we pick up off the battlefield to determine whether or not they've got information that will be helpful to protect the country."
Human rights and legal experts said yesterday that even if Snow's version of Cheney's remarks is correct, Cheney's comments are troubling because dunking a terrorism suspect in water as part of an interrogation would actually be more physically dangerous than waterboarding. The tactic also would be illegal under U.S. and international laws, they said.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, noted that in the 1980s, Chadian forces led by military ruler Hissene Habre allegedly hung people upside down and dunked them in water during questioning. Habre was indicted by a Belgian court for torture and crimes against humanity and faces prosecution in Senegal.
Former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith said Cheney's comments were "irresponsible" and send a signal to U.S. interrogators that "the people at the top want you to get rough."
"It's clear that the vice president didn't mean a friendly swim at the country club," Smith said. "It would be designed to somehow frighten a prisoner and elicit information from them. Whatever it means, a dunk in the water is not harmless or innocent."
Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, issued a statement saying the comments provided another reason that voters should "change course" by voting for Democrats. "This administration's determination to assert the right to torture has undermined our moral authority, put our troops at greater risk and made our country less safe," Kerry said.
Snow and other Republicans pushed back strongly, arguing that Cheney's remarks had been misinterpreted and that the vice president had been talking about the value of interrogations in preventing terrorist attacks.
"That is a mighty house you are building on top of that molehill," Lynne Cheney said during an appearance on CNN's "The Situation Room." "A mighty mountain. This is complete distortion. He didn't say anything of the kind."
The ambiguities in the waterboarding debate were most evident during two contentious news briefings yesterday as Snow was repeatedly questioned by reporters who did not accept his explanations of Cheney's remarks. Snow repeatedly insisted that Cheney was not referring to waterboarding or any other technique, although he was at a loss to explain how being dunked in water would not also qualify as a method of interrogation.
Snow joked at several points about needing to avoid water-related metaphors in his comments, as when he accused reporters of "fishing" for answers. He declined to say what Cheney meant by dunking terrorism suspects in water but said he would get back to reporters with a fuller explanation, which did not materialize yesterday.
At one point during the first briefing, a frustrated reporter asked: "So the detainees go swimming?"
"I don't know," Snow responded. "We'll have to find out."
Staff writer Peter Baker and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.