President George W. Bush said the United States does not torture prisoners, trying to calm a controversy created when Vice President Dick Cheney embraced the suggestion that a "dunk in water" might be useful to get terrorist suspects to talk.
Human rights groups complained that Cheney's words amounted to an endorsement of a torture technique known as water boarding, in which the victim believes he is about to drown. The White House insisted on Friday that Cheney was not talking about water boarding but would not explain what he meant.
Less than two weeks before midterm congressional elections, the White House was put on the defensive as news of Cheney's remark spread. Bush was asked about it at a White House photo opportunity with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow was pelted with questions at two briefings with reporters.
Democrats also pointed to Cheney's statement.
"Is the White House that was for torture before it was against it, now for torture again?" tweaked Democratic Senator John Kerry. Kerry, in his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 2004, had been skewered by Bush for saying he had voted for war funds before he later voted against them.
Cheney triggered the flap in an interview Tuesday by radio broadcaster Scott Hennen of WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. Hennen said callers had told him, "Please, let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves lives."
"Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" Hennen asked.
"Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture," Cheney said. "We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."
On Friday, Cheney called reporters to his cabin on Air Force Two as he returned from a trip to Missouri and South Carolina.
"I did not talk about specific techniques and won't," the vice president said. "I didn't say anything about water boarding. ... He (Hennen) didn't even use that phrase."
"I have said that the interrogation program for a selected number of detainees is very important," Cheney said. "(It) has been I think one of the most valuable intelligence programs we have. I believe it has allowed us to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States."
At his photo op, Bush said, "This country doesn't torture, we're not going to torture. We will interrogate people we pick up off the battlefield to determine whether or not they've got information that will be helpful to protect the country."
Snow, at a morning meeting with reporters, tried to brush off the controversy.
"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."
Snow said Cheney did not interpret the question as referring to water boarding and the vice president did not make any comments about water boarding. He said the question put to Cheney was loosely worded.
In water boarding, a prisoner is tied to a board with his head slanted down and a towel covering his face. Water is then poured on his face to create the sensation of drowning.
The administration has repeatedly refused to say which techniques it believes are permitted under a new law. Asked to define a dunk in water, Snow said, "It's a dunk in the water."
At a televised briefing later, the questions turned tougher and more pointed.
"The vice president says he was talking in general terms about a questioning program that is legal to save American lives, and he was not referring to water boarding," Snow said.
Yet, the spokesman conceded, "I can understand that people will look at this and draw the conclusions that you're trying to draw."
Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement, "What's really a no-brainer is that no U.S. official, much less a vice president, should champion torture. Vice President Cheney's advocacy of water boarding sets a new human rights low at a time when human rights is already scraping the bottom of the Bush administration barrel."
Human Rights Watch said Cheney's remarks were "the Bush administration's first clear endorsement" of water boarding.
A new Army manual, released last month, bans torture and degrading treatment of prisoners, explicitly barring water boarding and other procedures.