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White House spokesman spars with press regarding Cheney's torture 'admission'

David Edwards and Ron Brynaert
Published: Friday October 27, 2006

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In this afternoon's briefing, White House spokesman Tony Snow sparred with the press regarding Vice President Dick Cheney's torture "admission."

During an interview on a conservative radio show earlier this week, Cheney was asked whether he agreed "that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves American lives."

"It's a no-brainer for me," Cheney responded. "But for a while there I was being criticized as the vice president for torture."

Snow told the press that Cheney was denying that his comments were specifically referring to the practice known as "water boarding." They had been seen as the first admission by a Bush administration official that terrorist detainees has been subjected to the practice, which even some Republican Senators consider torture.

"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."

"You say that Vice President Cheney doesn't make mistakes like this, he did go up and curse a senator to his face on the Senate floor, and accidentally shot his friend," a reporter pointed out. "So he's not perfect."

As members of the press challenged Snow over and over, the White House press secretary insisted that the vice president was maintaining that he did not make any comments about water boarding and that the question asked of Cheney was loosely worded.

When a reporter said that he was just asking the White House spokesman to provide an explanation of what a dunk in water might mean, Snow answered, "Well, I'm telling -- how about a dunk in the water?."

A journalist then mockingly asked if that meant that a swimming pool had been set up for terror detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility so that they can "go swimming."

"I am telling you what the Vice President said," Snow told the press. "You can push all you want."

Video clips from MSNBC and FOX News coverage of the press conference:

Excerpts from Snow press conference:

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Q Tony, your argument that Vice President Cheney didn't know that he was being asked about waterboarding or wasn't being asked waterboarding and didn't intend to give an answer, but suggested he was saying the United States uses waterboarding. It just -- it doesn't follow when you read the transcript, and it doesn't follow with sort of common sense.

MR. SNOW: Well, I'll tell you what he --

Q How can you really make that argument?

MR. SNOW: -- I'll tell you he -- I'll tell you what he said. He was asked the question: You dunk somebody's head in the water to save a life, is it a no-brainer? And also if you read the rest of the answer, he also -- the vice president, who earlier had also been asked about torture -- he said, "We don't torture."

Let me give you the no-brainers here. Number one -- no-brainer number one is we don't torture. No-brainer number two, we don't break the law -- our own or international law. No-brainer number three, the vice president doesn't give away questioning techniques. And number four, the administration does believe in legal questioning techniques of known killers whose questioning can in fact be used to save American lives.

The vice president he 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.

Q But how can you say that he's not referring to waterboarding when it is very clear, when you look at the whole context of not only that specific question, but the one before?

MR. SNOW: Did the word -- did the word "waterboarding" appear?

Q It came up in the context of talking about interrogation techniques, and the entire debate --

MR. SNOW: I understand that.

Q -- has been conducted in this country --

MR. SNOW: I understand that. I'm telling you what the vice president said. You push all you want. He wasn't referring to waterboarding and would not talk about techniques.

Q Well, Tony, let's back it up here for a second, though, because what we're saying is -- and I've got the transcript:

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

Vice President: "It's a no-brainer for me."

Tony, what --

MR. SNOW: Read the rest -- read the rest -- read the rest of the answer.

Q Let's -- what did "dunk in the water" refer to, if not waterboarding?

MR. SNOW: I'm just telling you. I'm telling you the vice president's position. I will let you draw your own conclusions because you clearly have. He says --

Q I didn't draw any conclusions. I'm asking for an explanation about what "a dunk in the water" could mean.

MR. SNOW: Well, I'm telling -- how about a dunk in the water?

Q So wait a minute. That's -- so dunk in the water means, what, we have a pool now at Guantanamo and they go swimming?

MR. SNOW: You doing stand-up? (Laughter.)

Q I'm asking -- well, let's start with something basic. I mean, "dunk in the water" refers to what? If it doesn't refer to waterboarding, tell me what it could possibly refer to.

MR. SNOW: No. I'm -- because -- the transcript's there. You read it. You interpret it.

I'm telling you what the vice president says. He says he wasn't referring --

Q (Off mike.)

MR. SNOW: What you're saying is the vice president is wrong in reporting what he says. I'm sorry; I'm telling you what the vice president says. I can't go any further, and I'm not going to engage in "what could he mean," because he said what he meant. He said he wasn't talking about waterboarding.

And furthermore, what you didn't read was the rest of the answer, which I asked you to do --

Q Which says what?

MR. SNOW: Where he talks about we don't torture, we obey the laws, and that sort of thing. And it also came up regularly within the context of that conversation.

So I know it's inviting to say, "The vice president confirms waterboarding, he's talking about waterboarding." Just it's not there.

Q One follow on this, because what you said in the morning was, "You think Dick Cheney's going to slip up on something like this?" Is it possible that he's not slipping up at all --

MR. SNOW: No.

Q -- but that he's winking to the base and saying --

MR. SNOW: No. No.

Q -- "Of course we waterboard, and of course we'll do anything we need to to get the information" --

MR. SNOW: I think you just won the Cynical Question of the Year Award. No. I don't.

Q How (is it ?) cynical?

Q No, no, no, there are more -- there are a lot more --

Q Yeah, I'm -- (inaudible) -- cynical -- (laughter).

Q Deep bench.

MR. SNOW: (Laughs.) Jim, you can bang away as much as you want. I'm telling you what the vice president -- I talked to Lee Anne about it. She says no, he wasn't referring to waterboarding, he was referring to using a program of questioning, not talking about waterboarding.

Let me put it this way. You got Dick Cheney, who has been head of an intelligence committee, he's been the secretary of Defense, he's been the vice president. This is not a guy who slips up. And he's also not a guy who does winks and nods about things that involve matters that you don't talk about for political reasons. Sorry.

Q Why didn't the vice president, then, when the inference was clearly there from the questioner, who more than once referred to --

MR. SNOW: I believe that his office is --

Q Please let me finish. Let me finish. He in the questioning talked about how his radio listeners believe that this is a useful tool. "If it takes dunking someone in order to save lives, isn't it a silly debate to be even questioning that?" The vice president says, "I do agree," later says, "That's been a very important tool that we've been able to secure the nation," referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

If the vice president is so careful, why did he allow himself to answer a question in which dunking in water was a part of that question?

MR. SNOW: The answer -- look, he was answering a question. And also, as you know, he went on to talk about torture.

Look. I've said what I'm going to say on it. I can't -- I really -- what you're asking me to do is 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. So you can ask all the whys and wherefores.

But I want you to think -- let's go back to the no-brainer part here. The vice president is not somebody who's going to reveal techniques. He's been in this business for a very long time.

Q He was asked about a technique and he responded to a technique --

MR. SNOW: No, he was not asked --

Q -- and he said that he agreed --

MR. SNOW: He was not asked --

Q Informally he did.

MR. SNOW: No, "informally" doesn't work. I mean --

Q He knows in the context of a radio interview, to borrow your phrase, --

MR. SNOW: Well, I know. But, no, I think -- I actually think --

Q He's in a conversation with a radio audience to speak to the American people.

MR. SNOW: I understand all of that.

Q It doesn't have to be legally precise. The vice president understood what the questioner was asking.

MR. SNOW: I'll tell you, and I'll tell you once again, the vice president says that he refers to the fact that when you're questioning people, you don't torture, you obey the law and you protect the American people.

Q Tony --

MR. SNOW: We're not going to go any --

Q Tony, is it not possible that the two are not mutually exclusive? In other words, that the vice president does not construe waterboarding as torture --

MR. SNOW: No.

Q -- and therefore, to him, in the same sentence --

MR. SNOW: No, no, no, no, no.

Q So he does think waterboarding is torture?

MR. SNOW: No, what he does -- he doesn't talk about waterboarding. And he also -- what he does say is that the techniques that the Americans use do not qualify as torture, and he is not going to talk about specific techniques.

Q Well, we know -- (off mike) -- that a dunk in the water does not qualify as torture, right? And the vice president is saying we're not involved in torture, and a dunk in the water is a no-brainer for him. Is he saying, then --

MR. SNOW: Okay. And I will let you -- I will let you deconstruct. The text speaks for itself.

Let's change --

Q Wait. Hold on a second here, you're saying you will let us deconstruct it.

Q Did you talk to him?

MR. SNOW: No, I didn't. I talked to LeeAnne.

Q Ah, you had a cutout.

Q Wait, don't you think --

MR. SNOW: I had a cutout?

Q Yeah.

MR. SNOW: I'll be happy to talk to him. Okay? I'll talk to him for you, okay? Everybody happy?

Q Yeah.

Q Will he talk to you?

Q Will you tell us what he said? (Laughs.)

Q (Inaudible) -- dunk in the water. That's a serious question, and you can't just sort of beg off and say I'm sorry, I'm not going to deconstruct it.

MR. SNOW: No, but, Jennifer -- Jennifer, have you listened -- there have been statements out of that office for two consecutive days that say they don't talk about waterboarding, they don't talk about torture, they don't condone torture. They're not going to talk about techniques.

Q All we're asking is what's a dunk in the water? What's the definition of a dunk in the water?

Q He agrees with it. We want to know what that means.

MR. SNOW: All right.

Q If he agrees with a dunk in the water, then you --

MR. SNOW: Talk about a dunk in the water.

Q But you need to deconstruct it, not us. That's why we're asking you.

MR. SNOW: Okay. Well, I've told you what deconstruction I've had.

Yes, Anne?

Q Tony, this administration has indeed talked about specifics, including after Abu Ghraib, President Bush condemning that kind of behavior.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q And he did talk about specifics, saying that was not -- what was done was --

MR. SNOW: Well, wait a minute. He was talking about specific breaches of the law. He was not talking about lawful techniques, which we will not disclose for obvious reasons of security.

Q You say that Vice President Cheney doesn't make mistakes like this, he did go up and curse a senator to his face on the Senate floor, and accidentally shot his friend. So he's not perfect. (Laughter.)

(Cross talk.)

MR. SNOW: No, I mean, it's just -- that's -- that's -- (more laughter) -- it's a great line, but it's not germane.

Yes, Helen?

Q Is the emphasis on "we don't torture" when we send captives to notorious places that do torture --

MR. SNOW: No. As we've -- no. As we've said many times, when we move people to another place, we have to have assurances that there will be no torture and the treatment will be in accordance with international law.

Q Well, why don't you keep them here? Why? Why don't you keep them in your own captivity?

MR. SNOW: Well, wait a minute. I thought you guys wanted to close off Guantanamo. The only way you do that -- we quite often try to repatriate people to places --

Q (Off mike) -- going on before you even had any intention, and you certainly don't now.

MR. SNOW: Yeah. Yeah. Well, let me just make it clear again. We don't condone torture, we don't participate in torture, we don't do torture.

Q But how can we believe you when there's so much indication otherwise? Cheney went to the Hill to convince them they should not go for a ban on torture.

MR. SNOW: Well, the people on the Hill have expressed their will. And furthermore, the administration has always said that we don't conduct acts of torture, and we don't condone torture.

Q I think the larger issue is credibility -- yours and the White House's. We're talking, both in this instance and yesterday, about very clear -- about specific language where you refute the semantic differences within the language and refuse to acknowledge which are very clear --

MR. SNOW: Look, it's -- no, I can understand that people will look at this and draw the conclusions that you're trying to draw.

As for yesterday, those are two entirely different issues. And I think I've explained that on the issues with Prime Minister Maliki and the United States, we're playing off the same playbook. I understand this; we will try to deal with it. I think you guys are -- maybe it's the end of the week. You're getting whipped into a frenzy.

Q (Off mike) -- to the American people -- do you think they don't understand?

Q That's not fair.

MR. SNOW: No, what I'm saying -- no, I think it is, because you guys know Dick Cheney. You know the issue. I will go back and I will try to find some language for you.

Q He has found dunking people in water as a part of the robust interrogation --

MR. SNOW: I think that he disavows torture, and he will not talk about specific techniques.

Q Okay, but just the wish list for us in terms of a question is this notion of what did he mean when he said dunking a terrorist in water --

MR. SNOW: And I will tell you what the office has said, and I will ask him directly. But what they've said is -- he was talking generally about a program -- without referring to "dunking in the water" -- that is used to interrogate people and to get important information so you can save American lives.

The other thing you need to think about is that, again, the vice president, talking about a program that has now passed congressional scrutiny, been through a long debate and a thoughtful debate about how you can question people and save American lives -- that really was the topic they were discussing.

Q But that's not what we're asking about, though, now.

MR. SNOW: I know.

Q (Off mike.)

MR. SNOW: Well, actually, it is what you're asking about. (It was in ?) the conversation.

Look, we're going to go around the merry-go-round. Let me just get you some answers that will be more acceptable to you.

Q Can you clarify that on Maliki -- is there an agreement in place that the U.S. and the Iraqis have mutually agreed to on benchmarks?

MR. SNOW: Let me put it this way. We get ourselves -- this is one of these things where I want to be careful about the wording, because Prime Minister Maliki, I think, is rightly concerned that there may be the perception that somebody's saying, "You must do this by a certain date." And that is not the way it works.

What you do have is collaborative efforts to try to work toward a series of goals, political, economic and security. And as I mentioned yesterday, the Iraqis have already published a lot of their economic and political goals. And as I've also explained, for obvious reasons, you don't really go public with a lot of the security stuff, because it in fact tips your hand.

But it safe to say that we are working with him on the goals -- for instance, the ones that he was outlining yesterday. He does want Iraqi troops taking primary command of operations within the country as soon as possible. He wants to make sure that they're properly trained and equipped and ready to go and professionalized, and we absolutely agree.

Q Is Donald Rumsfeld not aware of this plan?

MR. SNOW: Donald Rumsfeld actually said that there's no daylight between the two. Donald Rumsfeld is in fact aware of how it works. It's one of these things where you want to make sure that when you're discussing it, you also want to respect Prime Minister Maliki's prerogatives as the head of a sovereign state. And he is sensitive about the use of terms like "benchmark" and "timetables." So I think it's safe to say that we have mutually agreed-upon goals, and we're working together to achieve them.

Q Will you stop using the word "benchmark"?

MR. SNOW: I think I'd be delighted to. If it -- even if it's used in questions, I will change it back to "goals."

Yes?

Q To bring this back to our -- the topic that we really started on and Jim's cynical question of the year --

MR. SNOW: Yeah.

Q -- the president mentions every time he goes out on the campaign trail that Republicans are better at protecting the American people than Democrats.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q He points to Democrats' votes on the CIA interrogation technique, the bill, moving it forward.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q Is it possible that the vice president was trying to make the point that somehow this party, this administration will do what it's taking -- or will do what it takes to protect the American people?

MR. SNOW: No, it -- the vice president and the president understand that when you're operating in a capacity of trying to defend the country, you have an obligation to the laws, the Constitution and the people. And you never take your eye off that.

So the vice president and the president are absolutely clear with anybody in the chain of command: you obey the law, you obey the procedures, you obey your international commitments. There's not a wink and a nod that yeah, boy, we're going to take him back behind the door and just whack him. It doesn't work that way, Bret.

Q But you also won't say whether the vice president or the president believe water-boarding is torture.

MR. SNOW: As you've -- I'll be happy to recite it or write it a hundred times on the blackboard. We don't talk about specific techniques.

Q Can you clarify something? A couple seconds ago, you said, "I can understand why people look at this and draw this conclusion."

What --

MR. SNOW: Because you're going to talk about dunks in the water, and I know people say, "Aw, that must mean water-boarding." I mean, I understand that you draw that --

Q What is it, then?

MR. SNOW: So we'll get into it.

Q But who wouldn't?

Q Wouldn't you draw that conclusion --

MR. SNOW: No, I wouldn't, because I know the vice president, and I know the way people think in the White House.

Q Isn't there anything other -- any other term referring to water that's been in this public debate over the last year and intensely over the last six weeks up on the Hill as this bill was being debated?

MR. SNOW: I just -- I don't know, Dick. I don't know. Thank you.

Go ahead.

Q You're up there trying to redefine the meaning of "is." I mean, you know, it just --

MR. SNOW: You know, we tried -- we actually tried that trope yesterday.

No, what I'm trying to do is walk through the way the vice president thinks. And you all know him. I mean, it's -- there's this common-sense factor involved here.

Q Were you in the meeting with the conservative columnists the other day, the interview --

MR. SNOW: I'm sorry. What was --

Q Were you in the interview with --

MR. SNOW: Yes, I was.

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