Former Vice President Dick Cheney may have acknowledged his complicity in a war crime when he told an interviewer on Sunday that he was "a big supporter" of the Bush administration's use of waterboarding on suspected terrorists.
Legal expert and one-time Nixon White House counsel John Dean appears to agree with that conclusion, although he cautiously told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on Tuesday that Cheney had merely "admitted to torture, which once was a war crime."
"I'm not quite sure after the Bush administration lawyers got finished with it that it was," Dean continued, though his tone of voice made it clear that he didn't actually mean his words. "At least [Cheney] doesn't seem to believe that it is. But by normal beliefs, it is a war crime."
When Olbermann asked whether a statement made during a TV interview could be considered a legal confession, Dean answered, "It certainly is an admission against interest, and these are admissible in many proceedings."
In criminal law, an "admission against interest" is a statement which "tends to show guilt of the defendant," even though it does not amount to a full confession.
Scott Horton at Harper's has called for Cheney to be prosecuted on the basis of his remarks, writing, "What prosecutor can look away when a perpetrator mocks the law itself and revels in his role in violating it? Such cases cry out for prosecution. Dick Cheney wants to be prosecuted. And prosecutors should give him what he wants."
Dean sees this as unlikely, however, noting that "there doesn't seem to be any disposition" in the Obama administration to actually pursue charges. He suggested instead that Cheney's statement might provide fuel to the ongoing Spanish inquiry into a group of former Justice Department lawyers known as "the Bush Six."
"What Cheney's doing," Dean explained, "is pouring some gasoline on the fire, if you will. He's just making it worse for them."
"There's a very outside possibility of [Cheney] ever being prosecuted for this," Dean concluded. "His aides might --- Spain might do something. But the vice president himself not likely. So I think he's ... probably pushing it for political purposes."
This video is from MSNBC's Countdown, broadcast Feb. 16, 2010.