Treading Hot Water

By Al Kamen
Friday, February 8, 2008

The 2008 Loop Award for Water Ballet goes to . . . drumroll, please . . . Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.

McConnell was selected for his excellent performance Tuesday, when he explained to the Senate intelligence committee that he didn't really tell the New Yorker that waterboarding is torture.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked him whether his quoted statements indicated that "for yourself, if used, waterboarding would, in fact, constitute torture. Is that correct?"

"No, ma'am, it's not correct," said McConnell, who had talked to reporter Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower." "The discussion was about something entirely different. It was a personal discussion about when I grew up and what I was doing as a youngster," which was "being a water-safety instructor," he said.

McConnell told Feinstein that he talked about how he was one of those people who "have difficulty putting my head underwater," adding: "If my head goes underwater, I ingest water in my nose."

Wright, McConnell said, asked " 'Well, what about when water goes up your nose?' And I said, 'That would be torture.' I said, 'It would be very painful for me.' Then it turned into a discussion of waterboarding."

So the quote "'Whether it's torture by anyone else's definition, for me it would be torture,' is not correct?" Feinstein asked.

"I said it," McConnell acknowledged, but what "I was talking about was water going into my nose, given the context of swimming and teaching people to swim. So it's out of context," he explained.

McConnell said that when Wright called later to check facts, he asked him "not to put that in the article. We argued for 90 minutes." (Hmm . . . so the DNI, in a time of war, has 90 minutes to wrassle about such things?)

Wright sharply disagreed.

"No, we weren't talking about swimming," he told us yesterday, "we were talking about his military training and I asked him if waterboarding was part of that training. The context was how awful it would be if it were done to him," Wright said. It was then that McConnell "brought up his experience as a water-safety instructor."

Wright said that after the interview last summer, "I sent him an e-mail with his comments on torture [and] told him it strongly implied that he condemned waterboarding as torture. He didn't respond."

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