Dick Cheney, US vice-president, has endorsed the use of "water boarding" for terror suspects and confirmed that the controversial interrogation technique was used on Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the senior al-Qaeda operative now being held at Guantánamo Bay.
Cheney was responding to a radio interviewer from North Dakota station WDAY who asked whether water boarding, which involves simulated drowning, was a "no-brainer" if the information it yielded would save American lives. "It's a no-brainer for me," Cheney replied.
The comments by the vice-president, who has been one of the leading advocates of reducing limitations on what interrogation techniques can be used in the war on terror, are the first public confirmation that water boarding has been used on suspects held in US custody.
"For a while there, I was criticized as being the 'vice-president for torture'," Cheney added. "We don't torture ... 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."
Cheney said recent legislation passed by Congress allowed the White House to continue its aggressive interrogation program.
But his remarks appear to stand at odds with the views of three key Republican senators who helped draft the recently passed Military Commission Act, and who argue that water boarding is not permitted according to that law.
"[It's] a direct affront to the primary authors of the Military Commission Act in the Senate — John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Warner — all of whom have publicly stated that the legislation signed by the president last week makes water boarding a war crime," said Jennifer Daskal, advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "This is Cheney ignoring the consensus of his own Pentagon," she said, referring to comments by senior officials that harsh interrogation techniques do not produce reliable intelligence.
John Bellinger, the State Department legal adviser, last week declined to answer specific questions on water boarding, saying Congress would have to determine whether specific interrogation techniques were permissible under the Geneva conventions.
The Bush administration was forced to work with Congress to pass the Military Commissions Act after the Supreme Court ruled that al-Qaeda suspects were entitled to some protections under the Geneva convention. "Any procedures going forward would have to comply with the standards of Common Article 3 [of the Geneva conventions], including the prohibition on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," Bellinger said. "Congress would have to agree that they are permitted under the law."
Asked in the radio interview whether he would agree that the debate over terrorist interrogations and water boarding was "a little silly", Cheney responded: "I do agree".
"I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high-value detainees like Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, that's been a very important tool that we've had to be able to secure the nation," he said.