WASHINGTON—Vice President Dick Cheney wasn't referring to the controversial interrogation method of "water boarding" when he called dunking terror suspects in water "a very important tool" for obtaining information on al-Qaida, the White House insisted Friday.
White House spokesman Tony Snow, however, was unable to clarify what Cheney did mean in a Tuesday radio interview in which the vice president said that dunking detainees in water was "a no brainer" if it saved American lives.
"I will ask him," Snow said.
"This country doesn't torture," asserted President Bush, while not commenting directly on Cheney's remarks. CIA officers or contractors have subjected a small number of suspected terrorists to water boarding so it would appear that the president meant that his administration doesn't consider water boarding a form of torture.
Human rights groups charged that Cheney's comments amounted to an endorsement of torture, which is barred by a new Army field manual on interrogation and by a new law that Bush signed last month.
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 in the Middle Ages and by the Japanese against American prisoners of war during World War II.
In the radio interview, with WDAY, of Fargo, N.D., the interviewer said many Americans had called to say that they thought "dunking a terrorist in water" was acceptable if it saved lives.
Cheney responded: "I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high value detainees like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, that's been a very important tool that we've had to be able to secure the nation."
He then was asked: "Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no brainer if it can save lives?" he was asked.
"It's a no brainer for me," Cheney replied, adding that, "We don't torture."
Peppered with questions during a White House news conference on Friday, Snow said that Cheney was not talking about water boarding.
"Let me give you the no-brainers here," said Snow. "No-brainer number one is we don't torture. No-brainer number two, we don't break the law, our own or international law. No-brainer number three, the vice president doesn't give away questioning techniques. And number four, the administration does believe in legal questioning techniques of known killers whose questioning can in fact be used to save American lives."
"The vice president he says he was talking in general terms about a questioning program that is legal to save American lives, and he was not referring to water boarding," Snow continued.
Snow said he had not spoken directly to Cheney, but would ask him to clarify his remarks.
In a CNN interview, Cheney's wife, Lynne, said that interpreting her husband's comments as a reference to water boarding was "a complete distortion."
Less than two weeks before congressional mid-term elections, some Democrats seized on Cheney's comments to recall that the vice president had lobbied Congress against passing a torture ban. They also pointed out that the three Republican sponsors of a new law on military commissions had said that the measure prohibited water boarding.
"Is the White House that was for torture before it was against it, now for torture again?" said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
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.
"What's really a no-brainer is that no U.S. official, much less a vice president, should champion torture," said Larry Cox of Amnesty International. "Vice President Cheney's advocacy of water boarding sets a new human rights low."
"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.
A transcript of Snow's briefing is at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/10/20061027-1.html
A transcript of Cheney's interview is at
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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