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What Was Cheney Thinking?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 30, 2006; 12:56 PM

The one question an unusually dogged White House press corps on Friday demanded that Vice President Cheney address remains unanswered: If he wasn't talking about waterboarding, what did he mean by a "dunk in the water"?

Cheney last week agreed with a radio interviewer's assertion that "a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives." That sure sounded like an endorsement of waterboarding, a brutal interrogation technique widely viewed as torture.

On Friday, White House press secretary Tony Snow and then Cheney himself insisted that he wasn't talking about waterboarding at all.

But is there any other plausible explanation? We have yet to hear it.

Here's the text of Cheney's radio interview, the audio (from WDAY radio in Fargo, N.D.) and a White House photo .

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

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president 'for torture.' We don't torture. "

Here is the text of Cheney's fussily parsed and utterly unconvincing response to a reporter's question on Friday, posed aboard Air Force Two:

"I was being interviewed by a talk show host. I don't talk about techniques and I wouldn't. I have said that the interrogation program for a select number of detainees is very important. It has been I think one of the most valuable intelligence programs we have. And I believe it has allowed us to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States. I did not talk about specific techniques involved --

"Q: So it was not about water boarding, even though he asked you about dunking in the water?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I didn't say anything about water boarding. Those were all his comments. He didn't even use that phrase.

"Q: He said dunking in the water.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I didn't say anything, he did."

Briefing Room Follies

Here's the text of Friday's wonderfully contentious briefing.

"Q: Tony, your argument that Vice President Cheney didn't know that he was being asked about water boarding or wasn't being asked about water boarding and didn't intend to give an answer that suggested he was saying the United States uses water boarding, it doesn't follow when you read the transcript and it doesn't follow 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 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. 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. . . .

"Q: What could 'dunk in the water' refer to if not water boarding?

"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 he wasn't talking --

"Q: I haven't drawn any conclusions. I'm asking for an explanation about what 'dunk in the water' could mean.

"MR. SNOW: How about a dunk in the water?

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

"MR. SNOW: Are you doing stand up? (Laughter.) . . .

"Q: What other way is there to interpret this?. . . .

"Q: One follow on this, because what you said in the morning was, 'You think Dick Cheney is 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.

"Q: -- 'of course we water board, and of course we'll do anything we need to to get the information because he knows that what they do --

"MR. SNOW: I think you just won the cynical question of the year award. No, I don't.

"Let me put it this way. You got Dick Cheney, who had been head of an intelligence committee. He's been the secretary of defense. He's been the vice president. He's 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."

ABC News' Ann Compton then got off one of the more memorable briefing-room ripostes in a long time:

"Q: To 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.)"

Snow's response: "That's a great line, but it's not germane."

Here's another Snow gambit blowing up in his face:

"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: We don't know him.

"Q: That's a logical fallacy."

By the end of the briefing, Snow agreed to try to talk to Cheney directly and get some answers.

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

"Q: All we're asking is, what's a 'dunk in the water'?"

The Coverage

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Vice President Dick Cheney wasn't referring to the controversial interrogation method of 'water boarding' when he called dunking terror suspects in water 'a very important tool' for obtaining information on al-Qaeda, the White House insisted Friday.

"White House spokesman Tony Snow, however, was unable to clarify what Cheney did mean in a Tuesday radio interview in which the vice president said that dunking detainees in water was 'a no-brainer' if it saved American lives."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Cheney told reporters aboard Air Force Two last night that he did not talk about any specific interrogation technique during his interview Tuesday with a conservative radio host. . . .

"Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters that the vice president was talking literally about 'a dunk in the water,' though neither Snow nor Cheney explained what that meant or whether such a tactic had been used against U.S. detainees. . . .

"Human rights and legal experts said yesterday that even if Snow's version of Cheney's remarks is correct, Cheney's comments are troubling because dunking a terrorism suspect in water as part of an interrogation would actually be more physically dangerous than waterboarding. The tactic also would be illegal under U.S. and international laws, they said. . . .

"Former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith said Cheney's comments were 'irresponsible' and send a signal to U.S. interrogators that 'the people at the top want you to get rough.'"

Paul Reynolds writes for the BBC News: "The rapport between interviewer and interviewee suggests that they knew very well what they were talking about.

"The mystery of whether water-boarding is allowed also remains. A new U.S. army manual bans its use by military personnel, but the rule does not apply to the CIA. That Mr. Cheney came close at least to approving it should again be no surprise.

"He fought a long battle to maintain the CIA's ability to run secret detention sites around the world and to use interrogation methods which do not, in his view, amount to torture but which do in the eyes of human rights organizations."

Talking Points Memo reader DK writes that "the White House has managed to turn into a story about what Cheney really said or what he really meant by what he said.

"There's no legitimate doubt about what Cheney said and what he meant. Cheney knows it. The president knows it. So do Tony Snow and the whole White House press corps. Yet we have this spectacularly silly dance -- clever people being too clever by half: Snow and Cheney's staff cleverly parsing the interview, and the press cleverly trying to trip up the parsers."

Opinion Watch

From a Cincinnati Enquirer editorial: "Cheney's remarks add to international perceptions that high-placed U.S. officials publicly condemn torture but privately condone it."

From a Miami Herald editorial: "Vice President Dick Cheney says he has been criticized as the 'vice president for torture,' an appellation he apparently dislikes. Small wonder. By appearing to endorse the interrogation technique called 'water-boarding,' which is banned by the U.S. Army and condemned by human-rights experts, he is condoning a form of torture that should never be used by U.S. forces in or out of uniform."

Hendrik Hertzberg writes in the New Yorker: "The 'dunk in water' they were talking about is waterboarding. It has been used by the Gestapo, the North Koreans and the Khmer Rouge. After the Second World War, a Japanese soldier was sentenced to 25 years' hard labor for using it on American prisoners. It is torture, and torture is not a no-brainer. It is a no-souler. The no-brainer is the choice on Election Day."

The Bigger Picture

Jonathan Schell writes in The Nation about the "remarkable yearlong, step-by-step process of trial and error in which the administration, far from concealing its abuses of power, including the torture of prisoners, wound up giving them top billing in its electoral strategy. . . .

"In obedience to the strategy of drawing a distinction between Republicans and Democrats on a non-Iraq issue relating to terrorism, he sought to make just these abuses, including the practice of torture, the core of his party's appeal in the Congressional election. If successful, it would be as if when President Nixon had been accused of illegal wiretapping, lying and obstruction of justice, he had, instead of being subjected to articles of impeachment and thrown out of office, beaten the charge by muscling Congress into legislative complicity with his high crimes and then gone on to lead his party to victory in the next Congressional elections."

Matthias Gebauer and Georg Mascolo interview author Ron Suskind for Der Spiegel online:

"SPIEGEL ONLINE: With all your access to high-level sources, have you come across anyone who still thinks it is a good idea for the U.S. to torture people?

"Suskind: No. Most of the folks involved say that we made mistakes at the start. The president wants to keep all options open because he never wants his hands tied in any fashion, as he says, because he doesn't know what's ahead. But those involved in the interrogation protocol, I think are more or less in concert in saying that, in our panic in the early days, we made some mistakes.

"SPIEGEL ONLINE: Because they could have gotten information through normal interrogations . . . .

"Suskind: . . . yes, and without paying this terrific price, namely: America's moral standing. We poured plenteous gasoline on the fires of jihadist recruitment.

"SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the average interrogator at a Black Site understands more about the mistakes made than the president?

"Suskind: The president understands more about the mistakes than he lets on. He knows what the most-skilled interrogators know too. He gets briefed, and he was deeply involved in this process from the beginning. The president loves to talk to operators."

Lynne Cheney Explodes

Here's the transcript of Wolf Blitzer's acrimonious Friday interview with Lynne Cheney on CNN.

He played an audio clip from her husband's interview.

"BLITZER: It made it sound -- and there's been interpretation to this effect -- that he was, in effect, confirming that the United States used this waterboarding, this technique that has been rejected by the international community that simulates a prisoner being drowned, if you will, and he was, in effect, supposedly, confirming that the United States has been using that.

"L. CHENEY: No, Wolf -- that is a mighty house you're building on top of that mole hill there, a mighty mountain. This is complete distortion; he didn't say anything of the kind.

"BLITZER: Because of the dunking of -- you know, using the water and the dunking.

"L. CHENEY: Well, you know, I understand your point. It's kind of the point of a lot of people right now, to try to distort the administration's position, and if you really want to talk about that, I watched the program on CNN last night, which I thought -- it's your 2006 voter program, which I thought was a terrible distortion of both the president and the vice president's position on many issues."

Yes, rather than actually explain her husband's position, she attacked the media.

Said Cheney: "I mean, I thought Duncan Hunter asked you a very good question and you didn't answer it. Do you want us to win?

"BLITZER: The answer, of course, is we want the United States to win. We are Americans. There's no doubt about that. Do you think we want terrorists to win?

"L. CHENEY: Then why are you running terrorist propaganda?"

Fellow anchor Lou Dobbs gave Blitzer an attaboy:

"DOBBS: Terrific interview with Lynne Cheney. It really -- it was very revealing, in terms of the tone and the tact that's being taken. You know, now we are watching power bridling at truth being spoken to power. Kudos to you, Wolf."

And on Sunday , Blitzer himself had this to say: "I was frankly surprised when she came out swinging on Friday . . . surprised at her sniping at my patriotism."

Cheney's State of Denial

George F. Will writes for Newsweek: "In a recent interview with Vice President Cheney, Time magazine asked, 'If you had to take back any one thing you'd said about Iraq, what would it be?' Selecting from what one hopes is a very long list, Cheney replied: 'I thought that the elections that we went through in '05 would have had a bigger impact on the level of violence than they have . . . I thought we were over the hump in terms of violence. I think that was premature.'

"He thinks so? Clearly, and weirdly, he implies that the elections had some positive impact on the level of violence. Worse, in the full transcript of the interview posted online he said the big impact he expected from the elections 'hasn't happened yet.' 'Yet'? Doggedness can be admirable, but this is clinical.

"Anyway, what Cheney actually said 17 months ago was that the insurgency was in its 'last throes.' That was much stronger than saying we were 'over the hump' regarding violence. Beware of people who misquote themselves while purporting to display candor."

Rove Watch

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times about Karl Rove's plan to win.

"During a whirlwind five-hour trip to bolster an endangered GOP congressman's reelection prospects, White House political guru Karl Rove last week delivered a fiery speech to 500 party activists, then shook every available hand and posed for snapshots like a rock star. He toured suburbs recently trashed by a snowstorm. He also found time to huddle with local strategists.

"But the most significant element of Rove's effort to help four-term Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds keep his job may have occurred behind closed doors, when the White House strategist met with a federal disaster relief official contemplating how to respond to the storm. Four days later, Reynolds announced that President Bush would authorize millions of dollars in federal disaster aid for the area. . . .

"Rove is giving a virtuoso performance designed to prevent the Democrats from taking control of the House and Senate or, if that is no longer possible, to hold down the size of the Democratic victory to make it easier for the GOP to come back in 2008. His plan is three-pronged: to reenergize any conservatives who may be flagging; to make sure the GOP's carefully constructed campaign apparatus is functioning at peak efficiency, and to put the resources of the federal government to use for political gain."

In The Washington Post, Michael Abramowitz profiles Rove, who he writes is "just eight days from having his genius designation revoked -- or upgraded to platinum status. . . .

"Rove reads and makes comments on virtually everything the president is slated to say, plays a pivotal role in shaping the overall White House message and still plays an influential role on policy, according to [Chief of Staff Joshua B.] Bolten. His decades-old relationship with the president appears strong and deep, as the two confer every day, sometimes multiple times, on political developments and other issues. . . .

"Rove voices impatience with the notion that his own reputation is on the ballot. 'I understand some will see the election as a judgment on me,' he said. 'But the fact of the matter is that, look what has been set in motion -- a broader, deeper, strengthened Republican Party, and with an emphasis on grass-roots neighbor-to-neighbor politics, is going to continue.'"

Iraq Watch

Ellen Knickmeyer writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush coaxed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki back into a common front with the U.S. administration Saturday, soothing the Iraqi leader in a 50-minute video link-up after a week of missteps and sharp words exposed tensions between the two allies.

"Both leaders declared themselves 'committed to the partnership' and prepared to work 'in every way possible for a stable, democratic Iraq and for victory in the war on terror,' the White House said in a statement after the Baghdad-Washington teleconference."

Not Bush's Iraq

But for the real story, read Anthony Shadid , writing in The Washington Post about life in Baghdad.

And here's Fareed Zakaria , writing an unusually prescriptive cover story for Newsweek: "[W]ith planning, intelligence, execution and luck, it is possible that the American intervention in Iraq could have a gray ending -- one that is unsatisfying to all, but that prevents the worst scenarios from unfolding, secures some real achievements and allows the United States to regain its energies and strategic compass for its broader leadership role in the world.

"But in order for that to happen, we have to see Iraq as it is now. Not as it once was. Not as it could have been. Not as we hope it will become, but as it is today. There will be ample time to assign blame and debate 'what if's. The urgent task now is ahead of us.

"'We're winning,' President Bush said last week, and then explained his reasoning: 'My view is that the only way we lose in Iraq is if we leave before the job is done.' That circular definition of success resembles so much of the administration's Iraq policy, one that seems almost determined not to look at the country itself. Iraq, in this view, is a state of mind. If we lose faith, we lose. But there is a real country out there. And it is one in which events are increasingly moving beyond our control.

"In point of fact -- and it is a sad fact, but a fact nonetheless -- America is not winning in Iraq, which means that it is losing."

The Politics of War

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush has absorbed his share of body blows from Democrats criticizing his management of the war. But tagging his rivals as the party of 'defeat' is nonetheless extraordinary language for a commander in chief to use in a political campaign.

"Other wartime presidents have been much more reluctant to argue that only their party was committed to success. . . .

"In 1942, the first election after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was ... emphatic about separating war and politics. Roosevelt spent much of that fall visiting defense facilities on a tour during which he barred press coverage and insisted on being accompanied by Republican as well as Democratic local officials. When the chairman of the Democratic National Committee suggested that a GOP takeover of the House would be bad for the country, Roosevelt publicly rebuked him.

"Even President Nixon displayed more restraint during the 1970 midterm election. Nixon barnstormed the country asking voters to elect members of Congress who would support his war policy. But he took pains to avoid claiming that only his party wanted to win. 'This is not a partisan issue,' Nixon declared that October at a rally for a Texas Republican Senate candidate named George H.W. Bush."

As a result of Bush's polarizing strategies, Brownstein writes, "he now looks less like the president of all the people than the champion of a single faction."

Rallying the Bubble

After a nearly endless series of appearances only open to donors, Bush on Saturday attended the first of several political rallies, where attendance is free.

But anyone hoping to see how Bush would deal with members of the general public -- two out of three of whom, statistically speaking, are not at all happy with him -- will be disappointed.

Yes, tickets are free -- but they're being handed out by Republican campaign officials.

Furthermore, the White House is picking the locales and stage-managing the events with great care.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times that Bush is scheduled "to make repeat visits Monday and Tuesday to two Georgia districts, starting with a rally Monday in Statesboro for Max Burns, a Republican seeking to unseat incumbent Democratic Rep. John Barrow.

"The district is so Republican, and so pro-Bush, that even Barrow is airing television ads that proclaim: 'I agree with George Bush.'"

At his first rally, on Saturday, Bush unleashed his most brazen and inaccurate attacks on Democrats yet.

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "In an appearance that amounted to his first traditional campaign rally of the election season, President Bush on Saturday told wildly cheering supporters here that Democrats did not want to investigate, prosecute or even detain terrorists and had no plan for Iraq. . . .

"'In all these vital measures for fighting the war on terror, the Democrats in Washington follow a simple philosophy: Just Say No,' Mr. Bush said, borrowing the line from Nancy Reagan's 1980s campaign against drugs. He continued that theme in a call-and-response with the crowd, asking, 'When it comes to listening in on the terrorists, what's the Democratic answer?'

"'Just say no,' the audience answered.

"'When it comes to detaining terrorists, what's the Democratic answer?' Mr. Bush asked.

"'Just say no,' the crowd of roughly 4,000 answered.

"'When the Democrats ask for your vote November the seventh, what are you going to say?' Mr. Bush asked.

"'Just say no,' the crowd replied."

Here's the transcript of the rally.

Caroline Daniel writes in the Financial Times: "President George W. Bush finally gave a new meaning to the word bully in his bully pulpit at the weekend."

She also notes: "Saturday's rally was pure White House stagecraft. The lone black person in the room, and a Hispanic couple, were positioned directly behind Mr Bush. Dozens of ostensibly handcrafted signs -- including 'Moms for Mike' -- were handed out by campaign aides."

Between campaign events, Bush also made an appearance at the Charleston Air Force Base .

Jim Rutenberg blogs for the New York Times: "I have to say if anything the crowd of military seemed somewhat subdued. The scene was certainly dramatic. The president stood on a podium that was set up in front of a bunch of C4 cargo planes.

"But the crowd was nowhere near anything that can be described as ecstatic. . . .

"And while there were certainly hundreds here, several servicemen told me that this was a relatively low turnout given the size of the base and the fact that, according to two of them, this was what they call an active duty event, meaning if you were working you were supposed to be there."

Schuyler Kropf writes in the Charleston Post Courier: "Bush's formal pep talk was brief, lasting 12 minutes. He spent about an equal amount of time shaking hands with the crowd. Immediately afterward, the president helicoptered to Kiawah Island to attend a closed-door fundraiser for the Republican National Committee at the Sanctuary. . . .

"Attendance by base personnel to listen to Bush's speech was mandatory, drawing a few grumbles from some of those who saw the brief air base visit as cover for the political fundraising event on Kiawah."

The Next Eight Days

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "The closing theme of Bush's final week on the campaign trail, as described by his advisers: If the Democrats have a better idea, let's hear it. Bush will argue that the situation in Iraq is not nearly as bad as the news media are reporting. And Bush, along with military leaders in Iraq, will point to specific cases of success and courage shown by U.S. soldiers and marines to encourage voters to take heart."

Fox News's Sean Hannity is on Air Force One today, for an interview with Bush scheduled to air tonight and tomorrow.

The Next Two Years

Karen Tumulty and Mike Allen write in Time: "If lame-duck presidents are to achieve anything, they often have to look for ways to go around Congress, especially when it is in the hands of the other party. Clinton used Executive Orders and his bully pulpit to encourage school uniforms, impose ergonomic rules on employers and prevent mining, logging and development on 60 million acres of public land. White House press secretary Tony Snow says Bush may take the same bypass around Capitol Hill. 'He told all of us, "Put on your track shoes. We're going to run to the finish,"' Snow said. 'He's going to be aggressive on a lot of fronts. . . . '

"In fact, when it comes to deploying its executive power, which is dear to Bush's understanding of the presidency, the president's team has been planning for what one strategist describes as 'a cataclysmic fight to the death' over the balance between Congress and the White House if confronted with congressional subpoenas it deems inappropriate. The strategist says the Bush team is 'going to assert that power, and they're going to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court on every issue, every time, no compromise, no discussion, no negotiation.'"

Call Him 'Mr. Happy'

Tumulty and Allen also write: "However bleak the president's situation may look to outsiders, aides say he appears to be reveling in campaigning. . . . 'Sometimes he'll premise a point he makes by saying "Call me Mr. Happy, but I think . . . " or "I know I'm Mr. Optimism, but . . . ," says an aide."

Safavian Watch

Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "A federal judge yesterday sentenced David H. Safavian, a former top Bush administration official, to 18 months in prison for lying and concealing unethical dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. . . .

"Safavian, 39, a former chief of staff for the General Services Administration, wept as he told [U.S. District Judge Paul L.] Friedman that he knows now he never should have given Abramoff inside information about government-owned real estate that the lobbyist wanted to acquire. At the time, Safavian said, he thought what he was doing was innocuous. 'I didn't see anything wrong in helping Jack,' he said."

Another Snow Love Letter

Ben Wallace-Wells writes in the New York Times Magazine about "Snow, who is 51, is 6-foot-4, with a genial lectern slouch and a chin that looks as if it were built for contact. But the first thing you notice about him is his facility at managing the fragile balance of a press room, its constant teeter between sincerity, open hostility and absurdity. . . .

"Watching Snow in that room when he is working fluently and well is really something; the press secretary is gloriously glib."

There is, however, some interesting stuff about Snow's past:

"Snow once spent a couple of months on the news desk at the Greensboro Record, but otherwise he has always been an opinion writer, not a reporter. He does not have a great deal of reverence for the old-time idea of the objective, truth-seeking reporter: 'God, the source of all fact and truth, is objective,' he once told an audience at Hillsdale College, in Spring Arbor, Mich., 'but journalists, who often know very little, are not.'"

And: "After he left the first Bush White House, he stayed friendly with an obscure White House employee from New Jersey named Linda Tripp, who stayed on during the Clinton administration. When Tripp decided to write a tell-all book about the Democratic administration, it was Snow, of all her Bush White House contacts, she asked for help. Snow put Tripp in touch with the conservative literary agent and columnist Lucianne Goldberg."

Doonesbury Watch

Brilliant: Garry Trudeau on Bush's straw-man arguments.

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