WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney triggered a torrent of political fury and criticism last month with his don't-ask-don't-tell opinion of waterboarding.
But the former Massachusetts governor isn't alone among Republican presidential contenders in refusing to condemn the practice, which involves simulating drowning in order to extract information from suspected terrorists.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani won't rule out waterboarding, telling an Iowa town hall meeting that, "It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it."
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson told TV interviewer Charlie Rose last week that if American lives were at stake and there were a good chance that an individual could provide information that would help save those lives, "I would do whatever was necessary to get that information from that person."
California Rep. Duncan Hunter said "no" when he was asked whether he'd outlaw waterboarding, and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo said he didn't think that waterboarding was torture.
The only clear opponents are former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who recently said that waterboarding is torture and that torture should "not be the policy of the United States of America," Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"Ron Paul believes waterboarding is torture, and he is opposed to all forms of torture," spokesman Jesse Benton said.
Said McCain, who was tortured while he was a prisoner in North Vietnam: "It's in violation of the Geneva Conventions. It's in violation of existing law."
It was McCain who confronted Romney on the issue at last month's CNN-YouTube debate, telling him, "I am astonished that you would think such a torture would be inflicted on anyone ... held captive."
Romney fought back, saying, "I did not say, and I do not say, that ... I'm in favor of torture."
But, he added, "I'm not going to specify the specific means of what is and what is not torture so that the people we capture will know what things we're able to do and what things we're not able to do."
Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the Convention Against Torture and federal law outlaw treatment that inflicts severe mental or physical pain or suffering. A Texas county sheriff who waterboarded a criminal suspect was convicted and sentenced to prison for 10 years, and then-Gov. George W. Bush didn't pardon him.
Intelligence officers are divided on whether waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques produce information or disinformation. A 2002 U.S. intelligence report said that al Qaida leader Ibn Sheikh al Libi, whom the CIA sent to Egypt for questioning, coughed up bogus information when he said that Iraq had trained al Qaida members to use biological and chemical weapons.
The issue could come up again in Wednesday's final Republican debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, particularly since Congress is expected this week to consider legislation that effectively would outlaw harsh interrogation techniques.