By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Vice President Cheney said yesterday that he was not referring to an interrogation technique known as "waterboarding" when he told an interviewer this week that dunking terrorism suspects in water was a "no-brainer."
Cheney told reporters aboard Air Force Two last night that he did not talk about any specific interrogation technique during his interview Tuesday with a conservative radio host.
"I didn't say anything about waterboarding. . . . He didn't even use that phrase," Cheney said on a flight to Washington from South Carolina.
Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters that the vice president was talking literally about "a dunk in the water," though neither Snow nor Cheney explained what that meant or whether such a tactic had been used against U.S. detainees.
"A dunk in the water is a dunk in the water," Snow said.
The comments were aimed at calming a growing furor over Cheney's comments, which were taken by many human rights advocates and legal experts as an endorsement of waterboarding as a method of questioning.
Coming shortly before the midterm elections, the remarks prompted a wide range of political figures -- from Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to Cheney's wife, Lynne -- to weigh in on the issue, providing another unexpected controversy for Republicans as they fight to keep control of Congress. Reporters peppered Snow with questions about the interview during Snow's two daily news briefings.
Waterboarding, in which a prisoner is secured with his feet above his head and has water poured on a cloth over his face, is one of several methods of simulating drowning that date at least to the Spanish Inquisition. It has been specifically prohibited by the U.S. Army and widely condemned as torture by human rights groups and international courts.
"Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" Scott Hennen of WDAY in Fargo, N.D., asked Cheney on Tuesday. "Well, it's a no-brainer for me," Cheney responded.
Cheney also said he agreed with Hennen that the debate over interrogation techniques was "a little silly," and he praised the information obtained from U.S. terrorism suspects during questioning.
Hennen said in an interview yesterday that he did not know precisely which technique Cheney was referring to and was only passing along a question he had heard from a listener.
"It's impossible for me to say 'Did the listener mean waterboarding?' and 'Is waterboarding torture?' and that sort of thing," Hennen said. "I can't get in the vice president's head, and I can't get in the listener's head."
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.