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GOTT-October 26, 2006

VP Cheney on Our “Fairly Robust Interrogation Program” (Updated 10/27, 10/30, 11/3)

From a recent (apparently 10/24/06) interview of Vice President Dick Cheney (hat tip: William Edmundson):

Q: And I’ve had people call and say, please, let the Vice President know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we’re all for it, if it saves American lives. Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: 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. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided us with enormously valuable information about how many there are, about how they plan, what their training processes are and so forth, we’ve learned a lot. We need to be able to continue that.

The Congress recently voted on this question of military commissions and our authority to continue the interrogation program. It passed both Houses, fortunately. The President signed it into law, but the fact is 177 Democrats in the House — or excuse me, 162 Democrats in the House voted against it, and 32 out of 44 senators — Democratic senators voted against it. We wouldn’t have that authority today if they were in charge. That’s a very important issue in this campaign.

Are we going to allow the executive branch to have the authority granted and authorized by the Congress to be able to continue to collect the intelligence we need to defend the nation.

Q Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: 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. We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we’re party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.

And thanks to the leadership of the President now, and the action of the Congress, we have that authority, and we are able to continue to program.  [I’m guessing that last bit should be “to continue the program.”]

Read the whole interview here.  Yes, that is the Whitehouse web site.  They’re putting this out; this interview is released by the Vice President’s office.  They’re convinced it’s a political winner.  Sadly, they’re probably right, in my judgment.  (I’m not saying it will result in their party coming out on top in the upcoming elections; just that this issue will probably help them more than it hurts them politically – at least in the short run.)

I just want to emphasize two points here.

First, Cheney strongly indicates that when he says the likes of “We don’t torture,” he intends to use ‘torture’ in such a way that waterboarding does not count.  He doesn’t even consider that a grey zone: He’s perfectly happy to positively, flat-out assert “We don’t torture” when we do waterboard.   (Perhaps important to understanding that portion of the interview is the information that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, of whom Cheney speaks, was subjected to waterboarding, as is well-known.  See, for example, this story, from ABC news, scrolling down to what’s written under CIA technique #6, “Waterboarding.”)  Whatever your view is of the particular incident of our waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, keep this point in mind whenever this administration tells you that we’re not torturing prisoners, that they’re not going to allow any torture, etc.

Second, for those who might object to calling the Military Commissions Act of 2006 a “torture law,” it seems reasonably clear from the end of the material quoted above that the Vice President, at least, takes this law to grant the authority to do likes of waterboarding.  Of course, absurdly, he doesn’t count that as “torture.”  But his view of what the law grants the authority to do together with a non-absurd view of what constitutes “torture” would point to this indeed being a law that does grant the authority to torture.


UPDATE – 10/27: There’s an AP story today according to which Whitehouse press secretary Tony Snow denied that in the above interview Cheney was endorsing, or even talking about, water-boarding:

“You know as a matter of common sense that the vice president of the United States is not going to be talking about water boarding. Never would, never does, never will,” Snow said. “You think Dick Cheney’s going to slip up on something like this? No, come on.”

So, I guess I must have been misreading Cheney somehow.  What could I possibly have been thinking?  Cheney was asked:

Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

And Cheney immediately answered:

It’s a no-brainer for me.. .

And this in a context where he had just previously been asked about “dunking a terrorist in water” and had responded by bringing up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is widely known to have been subjected to water-boarding.  Yet, somehow, he’s “not going to be talking about water boarding.”  No, really: Come on.  Well, following the above link you can go to the Whitehouse’s own web site and read the whole interview for yourself and figure it all out.  At the very least, it and Snow’s comments are together quite confusing.

But apparently Snow is offering some clarification; this from the AP story:

Asked to define a dunk in water, Snow said, “It’s a dunk in the water.”

Thanks!  About equally helpful was the President:

President Bush, asked about Cheney’s comments, said, “This country doesn’t torture. We’re not going to torture.”

But the problem is, as I noted above, Cheney’s comments seem to indicate that when he, at least, says, “We don’t torture,” he means, however absurdly, to be construing ‘torture’ so that it doesn’t include water-boarding.  And now our President responds by assuring us that “This country doesn’t torture.  We’re not going to torture.”



UPDATE – 10/30: My further thoughts about Cheney’s interview take the form of a parable that is in a web post by Bill Edmundson here.


UPDATE – 11/3: Those who simply can’t believe that serious people would use ‘torture’ in such a way that waterboarding (which seems to be a paradigm case) doesn’t count might consider Tom DeLay’s new comments (from the last paragraph of this Newsday story):

“I don’t think water boarding is torture,” DeLay said. “My definition of torture is you physically harm someone by cutting them, by cutting their fingers, sticking things in their eyes, sticking their fingers in electric sockets. Water boarding is a frightening experience. But the person does not have physical damage.”

I wonder whether there really is no danger of lasting physical damage from waterboarding.  Those who use this method may sometimes hope for no lasting damage, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be safe to be playing around with asphyxiation in the way required.  But in any case, even if there really is no lasting physical damage, this seems to me just a case of making up one’s own new — and convenient — meaning for a word that already has an established meaning.  Isn’t torture (roughly) the infliction of severe pain or suffering?  To echo my parable linked to above, lasting physical damage seems no more necessary to ‘torture’ than bullet holes are to ‘execution’.

I’m not sure there’s much to say to those who might agree with DeLay’s definition.  But I’ll give it two quick shots.

(A) Imagine you’re undergoing unspeakable agony while being subjected to a procedure like waterboarding, but you’re not sure whether this procedure will cause any lasting physical damage.  “I wonder whether this will cause lasting physical damage” is a sensible thought for you to entertain.  But “I wonder whether this is torture” seems absurdly out of place — precisely because lasting physical damage isn’t necessary for the treatment to be ‘torture’, and you can be certain you are being tortured even while being uncertain that lasting physical damage will result.

(B) “We’ve developed a torture technique that does no lasting physical damage to the victim” doesn’t seem like a contradiction.  It would be a contradiction if doing lasting physical damage were part of the meaning of ‘torture’.

Posted by Keith DeRose in Current Affairs | Permalink


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From what I know of Cheney, I wouldn’t put it past him to have done the following (though of course there’s no positive evidence for this):

Regardless of what he thought of torture, waterboarding, or the important questions, he decided it would be humorous to take the question absolutely literally, meaning that he thought it was a no-brainer to give someone a little dunk if there’s a lot at stake. His thought at the time would be “well, I’m not going to make any comments about any of the practices being debated right now, and I’m certainly not going to indicate what’s actually taken place from among those questioned practices, but I can easily admit that a little dunk is a no-brainer”.

Hence his admission, in this reconstruction, would have been an attempt at over-literalness to defuse the more serious questions. I think I understand how Cheney’s mind works when it comes to word-wrangling, because I find myself doing similar things to what he does in interviews when I want to be less than forthcoming. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him doing something like this, taking some mild delight in his ability to say something fully true and non-controversial by taking him literally, and completely not caring that the majority of people would take him to be saying far more than he was actually saying. I find myself doing this to my wife sometimes, and she often doesn’t have a clue that I’m doing it.

As I said, I have no positive indication that he did this, but it seems to me to be wholly consistent with his personality (and his disdain for the media). If this is right, then Tony Snow wasn’t trying to cover up for an admission Cheney wasn’t supposed to have made. He was trying to recover from Cheney’s unusual insistence on taking people literally just because he prefers to do so in a way that most people won’t even pick up on.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | October 28, 2006 at 09:14 PM

I myself can’t see my way around understanding this as an endorsement of waterboarding by Cheney — and a pretty clear display that when he says the likes of “We don’t torture,” he simply doesn’t think waterboarding counts. Because in response to the questioner’s asking about “dunking a terrorist” Cheney himself brings KSM up and quite clearly endorses what was done to him — and presumably Cheney both knows about KSM’s having been waterboarded (and not just harmlessly dunked in water), and knows that it is widely known that KSM was waterboarded, so if “dunking in water” didn’t already mean waterboarding in that sick little conversation, it came to mean that at that point. Or so it would seem to me.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | October 28, 2006 at 10:30 PM

Going back to basics, people in general (and especially in public office) need to refrain from rewriting dictionaries in an attempt to stay away from any “mistruths” 😉

Posted by: Vincent Larregle | November 05, 2006 at 11:45 AM

1. I think the way to read the UN Declaration and the Geneva Conventions is that they rule out “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” (or equivalent terminology), including torture — not that they rule out torture and possibly cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

What is against international law is cid, of which torture is only the most extreme form.

2. The lasting damage of torture is very largely psychological. The effeccts of tortue are life-long. About one third of torture survivors commit suicide.

See Michael Spezio, Postdoctoral Scholar in Social Neuroscience, Caltech: “Neural and Psychological Effects of Torture for Survivors and Perpetrators,” online powerpoint presentation.
Spezio is a Presbyterian minister with a Ph.D. in neuroscience. He works with torture survivors at Cal Tech.

Posted by: George Hunsinger | November 21, 2006 at 12:22 PM

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