White House denies Cheney endorsed torturing suspects

Vice president called `dunking' detainees in water a `no-brainer'

October 28, 2006|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES

WASHINGTON -- Comments by Vice President Dick Cheney to a radio interviewer prompted questions yesterday about whether he advocated torturing terrorism detainees to obtain information.

The White House denied that Cheney had endorsed torture, and President Bush said the United States does not practice torture.

Cheney's remarks, in an interview Tuesday with a conservative talk-radio host from Fargo, N.D., stirred up fresh controversy over the interrogation technique known as "water-boarding," which experts say simulates drowning.

Human rights groups sharply criticized Cheney, and White House press secretary Tony Snow scrambled to explain what the vice president meant.

To save lives

The flap began when the interviewer told Cheney that some of his listeners believed that "if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves American lives."

The interviewer continued: "This debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?"

Cheney replied: "I do agree. And I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high-value detainees, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that's been a very important tool that we've had, to be able to secure the nation.

"We need to be able to continue that."

He was referring to the man, captured in Pakistan, who officials widely believe is the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

Cheney was then asked: "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?"

The vice president responded: "It's a no-brainer for me, 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."

Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, took issue with Cheney's remarks, saying: "What's really a no-brainer is that no U.S. official, much less a vice president, should champion torture.

"Vice President Cheney's advocacy of water-boarding sets a new human rights low at a time when human rights is already scraping the bottom of the Bush administration barrel."

In water-boarding, a subject is strapped down and his head is held under water or his mouth and nose are smothered by a cloth soaked in water to induce a sensation of drowning.

The technique was used in the Spanish Inquisition during the Middle Ages and by the Japanese against American prisoners of war during World War II.

Numerous legal and human rights experts and the U.S. Army consider water-boarding cruel and inhuman treatment under U.S. laws and international treaties prohibiting torture.

"If Iran or Syria detained an American, Cheney is saying that it would be perfectly fine for them to hold that American's head under water until he nearly drowns, if that's what they think they need to do to save Iranian or Syrian lives," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.

General terms

Snow said Cheney has said he was talking "in general terms" about the government's interrogation program for terror suspects, "and he was not referring to water-boarding."

Asked at a news briefing to what "dunk in water" was referring if not water-boarding, Snow said, "I will let you draw your own conclusions, because you clearly have."

Bush, asked yesterday about Cheney's comments, told reporters: "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."

Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife, joined the fray, saying in an interview on CNN that a suggestion that the vice president was in effect confirming the use of water-boarding was a "complete distortion; he didn't say anything of the kind."

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times. Wire reports contributed to this article.

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