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Cheney Defends Waterboarding Order

By Jason Leopold
December 23, 2008

Vice President Dick Cheney, in another stunning admission during his campaign to burnish the Bush administration’s legacy, said he personally authorized the “enhanced interrogations” of 33 suspected terrorist detainees and approved the waterboarding of three so-called “high-value” prisoners.

“I signed off on it; others did, as well, too,” Cheney said about the waterboarding, a practice of simulated drowning done by strapping a person to a board, covering the face with a cloth and then pouring water over it, a torture technique dating back at least to the Spanish Inquisition. The victim feels as if he is drowning.

Cheney identified the three waterboarded detainees as al-Qaeda figures Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and al Nashiri. “That's it, those three guys,” Cheney said in an interview with the right-wing Washington Times.

Other detainees at secret CIA prisons and at Guantanamo Bay were subjected to harsh treatment, including being stripped naked, forced into painful stress positions, placed in extremes of heat or cold and prevented from sleeping – actions that international human rights organizations, and previously the U.S. government, have denounced as torture and illegal abuse.

“I thought that it was absolutely the right thing to do,” Cheney said of what he called the “enhanced interrogation” of the detainees. “I thought the [administration’s] legal opinions that were rendered [endorsing the harsh treatment] were sound. I think the techniques were reasonable in terms of what they [the CIA interrogators] were asking to be able to do. And I think it produced the desired result.”

Cheney also took issue with the notion that waterboarding was torture.

“Was it torture? I don't believe it was torture,” Cheney said. “The CIA handled itself, I think, very appropriately. They came to us in the administration, talked to me, talked to others in the administration, about what they felt they needed to do in order to obtain the intelligence that we believe these people were in possession of.”

Other experts, including some military and intelligence interrogators, have disputed Cheney’s claims of success in extracting reliable information through waterboarding and other harsh techniques. Much of the confessed information turned out to be dubious or incorrect.

The First Case

 Zubaydah was the first “war on terror” detainee to be subjected to the Bush administration’s waterboarding, according to Pentagon and Justice Department documents, news reports and several books written about the Bush administration’s interrogation methods.

However, according to author Ron Suskind who interviewed CIA and other insiders, Abu Zubaydah was not the "high-value detainee" that the Bush administration had claimed. Rather, Zubaydah was a minor player in the al-Qaeda organization, handling travel for associates and their families, Suskind wrote in his book The One Percent Doctrine.

Nevertheless, Suskind said President George W. Bush became obsessed with Zubaydah and the information he might have about pending terrorist plots against the United States.

"Bush was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind wrote. Bush questioned one CIA briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?"

Abu Zubaydah's captors soon discovered that their prisoner was mentally ill and knew nothing about terrorist operations or impending plots. That realization was "echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President," Suskind wrote.

But Bush did not want to "lose face" because he had stated Zubaydah’s importance publicly, according to Suskind.

Zubaydah was strapped to a waterboard and, fearing imminent death, he spoke about a wide range of plots against a number of U.S. targets, such as shopping malls, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Yet, Suskind wrote, Zubaydah’s information under duress was judged not credible.

Still, that did not stop "thousands of uniformed men and women [who] raced in a panic to each ... target," Suskind wrote. "The United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

Cheney Unapologetic

Last week, in an interview with ABC News, Cheney was unapologetic about the waterboarding and other harsh techniques used against the detainees. But Cheney’s matter-of-fact response to the Washington Times’ questions on Monday provided the most detailed look yet at the administration’s highly classified interrogation program.

In the interview, Cheney defended the interrogation program by claiming the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) drafted legal memorandums stating Bush had the authority to suspend the Geneva Convention and order harsh interrogations of prisoners in the “war on terror.”

But the memos were written after Cheney, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and other high-ranking Cabinet officials known as the Principals Committee met in July 2002 to discuss specific interrogation techniques — including the outlawed technique of waterboarding — to be used against “war on terror” detainees.

The OLC attorneys fashioned the legal arguments that then gave legal cover for the interrogation strategies that the White House wanted to carry out.

The Aug. 1, 2002, opinion, widely referred to as the “Torture Memo,” was written by Jay Bybee, an assistant attorney general at the OLC, and John Yoo, Bybee’s deputy. It was addressed to Gonzales and stated that unless the amount of pain administered to a detainee during an interrogation results in injury "such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions" than the technique could not be defined as torture.

Additionally, the memo said CIA interrogators would not be prosecuted for violating anti-torture laws as long as they acted in “good faith” while using brutal techniques to obtain information from suspected terrorists.

“To validate the statute, an individual must have the specific intent to inflict severe pain or suffering,” the memo said. “Because specific intent is an element of the offense, the absence of specific intent negates the charge of torture.”

The memo was drafted the same month Abu Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding.

Jack Goldsmith, who succeeded Bybee as head of the OLC in October 2003, quickly determined that the Aug. 1, 2002, memo was “sloppily written” and “legally flawed” and withdrew it.

Administration critics also have noted that actions are not made legal simply by having friendly lawyers give favorable opinions.

“You can’t just suddenly change something that is illegal into something that is legal by having a lawyer write an opinion that saying it’s legal,” said Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee  whose panel spent two years investigating the Bush administration’s interrogation policies.

Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, said Cheney used the Justice Department to “twist” the law “and in some cases ignored it altogether, in order to permit interrogators to use barbaric methods that the U.S. once prosecuted as war crimes.”

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “there must be consequences for [these] illegal activities.” He added, “A special prosecutor should be appointed. To do otherwise is to send a message of impunity that will only embolden future administrations to again engage in serious violations of the law.”

The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is close to wrapping up a formal investigation to determine whether agency attorneys, including Yoo and Bybee, provided the White House with poor legal advice when they drafted the legal opinions.

The waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, Al Nashiri and Kalid Sheikh Mohammed was videotaped, but those records were destroyed in November 2005 after the Washington Post published a story that exposed the CIA's use of so-called "black site" prisons overseas to interrogate terror suspects.

John Durham, an assistant attorney general in Connecticut, was appointed special counsel earlier this year to investigate the destruction of that videotape as well as destroyed film on other interrogations.

Despite the torture criticism, Cheney said he has no regrets about the interrogation methods that he signed off on, claiming they were “directly responsible for the fact that we've been able to avoid or defeat further attacks against the homeland for seven and a half years.”

Cheney added, “I feel very good about what we did. I think it was the right thing to do. If I was faced with those circumstances again, I'd do exactly the same thing.”

Cheney’s remarks to the Washington Times were part of a two-week media blitz that has sought to highlight the Bush administration’s “accomplishments.”

The White House has published two lengthy reports, “Highlights of Accomplishments and Results of the Administration of George W. Bush,” and “100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record” in an attempt to change the emerging historical consensus about a failed presidency.

However, Cheney’s blasé responses to questions about torture have instead fed growing demands for a criminal investigation against Cheney and other Bush administration officials.

Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at

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