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U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has issued the Bush administration’s first clear endorsement of a form of torture known as waterboarding, or mock drowning, said Human Rights Watch today.

In a radio interview yesterday, Cheney agreed that subjecting prisoners to “a dunk in water” is a “no-brainer” if it could save lives. After being asked about this technique, he said that such interrogations have been a “very important tool” used against high-level al Qaeda detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and that they do not, in his view, constitute torture.

Cheney’s comments on the legality of waterboarding contradict the views of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Defense Department, as well as fundamental principles of international law, and could come back to haunt the United States if not corrected by the Bush administration, Human Rights Watch warned.

“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, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

Waterboarding dates at least to the Spanish Inquisition, when it was known as the tormenta de toca. It has been used by some of the most cruel dictatorships in modern times, including the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In some versions of the technique, prisoners are strapped to a board, their faces covered with cloth or cellophane, and water is poured over their mouths to stimulate drowning; in others, they are dunked head-first into water.

Drawings by a human rights group in Chad showing examples of waterboarding used in the 1980s by Chadian forces under the command of military ruler Hissene Habre, who was indicted by a Belgian court for torture and crimes against humanity and faces prosecution in Senegal.
View a slideshow documenting historical uses of waterboarding as torture.

The United States has long considered waterboarding to be torture and a war crime. As early as 1901, a US court martial convicted Major Edwin Glenn of subjecting a suspected insurgent in the Philippines to the “water cure.” After World War II, U.S. military commissions successfully prosecuted as war criminals several Japanese soldiers who subjected American prisoners to waterboarding. A U.S. army officer was court-martialed in February 1968 for helping to waterboard a prisoner in Vietnam.

The U.S. Congress recently adopted the Military Commissions Act, which criminalized under all circumstances treatment of prisoners that causes serious physical or mental pain or suffering. The legislation explicitly states that such suffering need not be “prolonged” for the treatment to constitute a war crime, a rebuke to past Bush administration legal opinions that reportedly permitted waterboarding on the questionable grounds that the terror it induces does not have a prolonged impact on its victims. Two of the chief sponsors of the legislation, Senators John McCain and John Warner, have said that it criminalizes waterboarding.

In April 2006, in a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, more than 100 U.S. law professors stated unequivocally that waterboarding is torture, and is a criminal felony punishable under the U.S. federal criminal code.

“Vice President Cheney needs to get a better lawyer, someone who will tell him not to endorse criminal activities over the airwaves,” said Malinowski.

On September 6, the Pentagon issued a new Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation that explicitly forbids the use of waterboarding in any interrogation. General Jeff Kimmons, the Senior Intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, explained when these new rules were released: “No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tell us that.” The U.S. Army’s new counterinsurgency manual states that “torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment is never a morally permissible option, even in situations where lives depend on gaining information.” It concludes that those who “lose moral legitimacy” by employing such methods “lose the war.”

To see more of Human Rights Watch’s work on waterboarding and abuse techniques, please visit the following:

Bush Justifies CIA Detainee Abuse

CIA Whitewashing Torture

Description of Techniques Authorized by the CIA

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