Cheney Admits He ‘Signed Off’ on Waterboarding of Three Guantanamo Prisoners

[Author’s note: Cheney’s admission during an interview with the Washington Times this week about his role in approving the waterboarding of three Guantanamo detainees and the so-called “enhanced interrogation” of 33 prisoners was, disturbingly, not covered at all by the mainstream media.]

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 is an investigative reporter and a two-time winner of the Project Censored award. He is the author of the National Bestseller, News Junkie, a memoir, and he has launched a new online investigative news magazine, The Public Record. Read other articles by Jason, or visit Jason's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Brian said on December 27th, 2008 at 9:13am #

    Will the constitutional law professor, now President-elect, move to have this admitted felon prosecuted?

    No, he doesn’t want to antagonize the Republicans he needs to get his conservative agenda past the minority Progressive Dems.

  2. bozh said on December 27th, 2008 at 10:40am #

    the torture was also done for the good of the hobos; so, it’s justifiable.
    the torture had shown to hobos how elevated they r in comparison to zubaydah, nashiri, ibrahim. it made their day.
    in add’n, we all r headed for hell to join genghis, jesus, truman, hitler, rabin, geronimo. thnx

  3. The Angry Peasant said on December 27th, 2008 at 11:09am #

    Cheney can brazenly admit whatever he wants now because he knows with all confidence and certainty that he is untouchable. The lack of even the consideration on the part of Congress to punish Bush/Cheney/Rice and co. in any way is stunning, unapologetic proof that Washington is just one big bed that they’re all bunking in together. This is where we’ve gone, folks. Illegal wars; the shredding of the Constitution; illegal wiretapping; supporting corporate fraud; torture. Kind of makes getting away with a little burglary a drop in the well, doesn’t it? If Nixon were still alive, how he would wish he were President now.

  4. rosemarie jackowski said on December 27th, 2008 at 1:09pm #

    The war crimes have been well known for a long time. The voters could have elected State Attorneys General who had pledged to prosecute Bush/Cheney. Half of the AG candidates in Vermont made that pledge. The US voters have spoken. They do NOT want prosecutions. War crimes will continue until the mind-set of the average USAsian changes. How long do you think that will take…

  5. John Hatch said on December 27th, 2008 at 6:16pm #

    It seems to me that to fail to prosecute such stunning crimes (and not ‘just’ torture, but also vile crimes against humanity committed in the conduct of two illegal wars) would be to repudiate the notion of justice itself and to proceed further into a moral and ethical vacuum. How can ‘Justice’ go after Madoff but ignore Bush/Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Ashcroft, Yoo, Bybee and a host of others.

    How can Mr. Obama begin his Presidency with any credibility whatsoever if he decides to ignore some of the most serious crimes in American history in favor of some imagined political expediency a la Pelosi? This is change? Weren’t the past eight years bad enough?

  6. The Angry Peasant said on December 27th, 2008 at 9:16pm #

    As we already know, Obama is more of the same, lying in the same bed as his fellow corporate puppets. And Rosemarie, the American people may have spoken, but only to say that they don’t care. Remember, we’re dealing with a largely apathetic poulation, and also a lot of people who feel like what they want doesn’t matter to the ruling class anyway, which they are absolutely right about.
    There was a time when the owners of this country at least made a pretense of caring about popular opinion. All that changed in the last couple decades. Now they do what they want, when they want. Take Clinton for example. The public did make it known that they didn’t want him impeached, yet he was impeached anyway. Now people have thrown in the towel. On the one hand, you can’t blame them. On the other, they should redouble their resolve to overthrow or vote out these bastards. But you can’t rest the blame solely on the voters. You must remember this is a Democracy in propagandist terms only. We’ve moved from a Democratic structure in the last thirty years to the pretense of one, to finally now, “You can all go f— yourselves.” The government doesn’t want to impeach Bush/Cheney, regardless of what the voters say either way. They are protecting them, because most of them have grown very wealthy during their reign. Not impeaching is their “Thank you.”

  7. rosemarie jackowski said on December 28th, 2008 at 2:27pm #

    John Hatch…Prosecutions won’t come from Washington. The Congress was complicit. Any hope of prosecutions was lost during the last election – that is unless some citizen group is willing to take on their State Attorney General or county prosecutor. Do I have any takers out there????? The case has already been laid out by Bugliosi. All we need is ONE AG or prosecutor – just ONE.

    Angry Peasant…As my old friend, Ralph Wright – former Speaker of the Vermont House – used to say, “All you need to be a politician, is to know how to count.” What he meant was that elected officials keep count of how many votes any action will get them. If voters had made known that they wanted prosecutions, we would have them. Letting the voters off the hook only encourages more apathy.

    That we don’t have a democracy is well known, but politicians know how to count – all of them do.

    It’s the voters – it’s always the voters who must accept ultimate responsibility. You can say that voters have been dumbed-down by an irresponsible, irrelevant media. That is true and that is also the fault of the public. It is not the government that is imposing stupidity on the public. The public demands stupidity by choosing to watch and read what it does.

  8. Hue Longer said on December 28th, 2008 at 3:54pm #

    Hello Rosemarie,

    I don’t agree entirely…If Obama had said during the campaign that he would prosecute GW, his popularity would have soared. The problem is what the media would have done to turn that around as fast as they could (and they would).

    The voters are being manipulated every turn and it’s not apathy by itself in all cases.


  9. bozh said on December 29th, 2008 at 8:09am #

    a child in us is taught that it lives in the greatest, freest, most just, etc., country.

    a country w. sacrosant constitution, greatest jurisprudence, etc.
    what is child to do than to accept all of that as true.

    but if a child is told that all of it is untrue in various degrees; h/she wld accept that as well and feel good.
    but the liars control all schooling. so, it’s up to parents to enlighten their children.
    it wld be a small step if just 2-5% of parents wld reveal this to them. one wld win over these children for a life time. thnx

  10. rosemarie jackowski said on December 29th, 2008 at 1:37pm #

    bozh…I agree that the educational system is a big part of the problem. I support a publicly financed universal, single payer PRIVATE educational system that also supports home schooling. I have taught for more than 50 years and have been convinced for a long time that the public school system, as it now exists, is so bad that it cannot be fixed. It must be replaced.

    Hue…I am not so sure about what you say. Think about what happened when Jeremiah Wright’s sermon was made public. Most USAsians believe that the USA can do no wrong. If Obama had supported Rev. Wright, he would have gained a few votes but probably would have lost the election. 2 of the 4 candidates for Attorney General in Vermont had publicly stated that they would prosecute. Those 2 candidates came in last. I was one of them. I knew that would happen. Sticking to my principles was more important than winning an election.