Leading human rights groups are denouncing U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney for appearing to approve an interrogation method they consider torture on suspected terrorists. Bush administration officials say Cheney was not referring to torture.
The controversy stems from an interview the vice president had with conservative radio host Scott Hennen on station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota.
According to a White House transcript of that interview, Hennen asked Cheney, "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?"
"It's a no-brainer for me, but, for awhile there, I was criticized as being the Vice President for Torture," said Mr. Cheney. "We don't torture. That's not what we are involved in. We live up to our obligations and international treaties that we are a party to."
Human rights groups believe that the phrase 'dunk in the water,' in the context it was used, refers to a technique, known as waterboarding, where a suspect is meant to believe that he or she will drown.
The recently revised U.S. Army Field Manual explicitly prohibits waterboarding as part of its broader ban against torture or degrading treatment.
In the interview, Cheney referred specifically to the interrogation of suspected terrorist leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the September 11 terrorist attacks. He did not say what methods were used, but said U.S. interrogators were able to extract useful information.
When Hennen again asked the vice president about a 'dunk in the water,' Cheney said, "that's been a very important tool that we've had to be able to secure the nation."
Human Rights Watch says Cheney's comments set a new human rights low. Amnesty International says Cheney is championing torture in what it calls a radical break with America's proud human rights tradition.
White House Spokesman Tony Snow says Cheney does not support torture.
"The vice president says he was talking in general terms about a questioning program that is legal to save American lives, and he was not referring to waterboarding," said Mr. Snow.
It was the interviewer who used the phrase 'dunk in the water.' When asked what the vice president meant, Snow said, "The transcript is there. You read it and you interpret it."
"Look, I've said what I'm going to say on it," he added. "I really can't… What you are asking me to do is to deconstruct something. I've asked what he meant. I've told you what he said he meant. I can't go any further than that."
Snow says that, as a matter of common sense, the vice president is not going to talk about waterboarding and never will.
President Bush was asked about the incident following a meeting with the NATO Secretary General.
"This country doesn't torture. We are not going to torture. We will interrogate people we pick up off the battlefield to determine whether or not they have got information that would be helpful to protect the country," said Mr. Bush.
America's treatment of detainees has been an issue in the fight against terrorism, even among some of its allies. President Bush says new rules give U.S. interrogators the tools they need to protect the nation, while respecting America's international treaty obligations, including the Geneva Convention.
Opposition Democrats say the vice president's comments show the White House has no clear policy on torture. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who lost the 2004 presidential election, says what he calls the Bush administration's "determination to assert the right to torture" has undermined America's moral authority, put U.S. troops at great risk, and made the country less safe.