WASHINGTON – Vice President Cheney said this week that dunking terrorist 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 U.S.
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 Sheikh 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 that 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.
But Bush administration officials have repeatedly declined to say which techniques they believe are permitted under the new law or to discuss methods used in the past.
Numerous sources have said 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 Thursday that the vice president was not confirming the use of any specific interrogation techniques.
“He was talking about the interrogation program without torture,” said spokeswoman Lee Anne McBride. “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 could be used on prisoners declared to be “unlawful enemy combatants,” but largely left it to the executive branch to decide whether many techniques would be legal.
The U.S. Army also revised its field manual last month to specifically ban waterboarding and other techniques as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” outlawed by the Geneva accords. Military officials said that experience had shown that abusive techniques did not work in yielding reliable intelligence from prisoners.
John Sifton, a senior researcher on terrorism and counterterorrism at Human Rights Watch, said Cheney’s comments seem to both endorse waterboarding and to 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.”