Is waterboarding torture? Ask nearly any CIA or White House official and you will not get a straight answer:

Porter Goss, former CIA director (2005), to ABC News: “I don’t know.”

Commenting on whether or not a “dunk in the water” (i.e., waterboarding) is torture, Cheney told a McClatchy reporter, “It’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president ‘for torture.’ ” Then in Christian Science Monitor: “A spokeswoman for Cheney denied that he confirmed, or endorsed, the use of (waterboarding) by US interrogators.”

And the next day in USA Today: “President Bush said Friday 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…The White House insisted Cheney was not talking about water boarding but would not explain what he meant.”

And here’s an oldie but goodie—Condolezza Rice in the LA Times: “I’m not going to speak to any specific interrogation techniques.”

Also in the LA Times, John Yoo, former assistant attorney general (and one who some contend to be a hack of a lawyer): “What the administration is saying is we’re not going to torture people… What the administration does not want to say, and I think for good reasons too, is what methods the United States might or might not use short of torture.” I should point out that Yoo has said on other occasions that torture short of death is OK by him. I should also point out that Yoo was a member of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department and contributed memos regarding the treatment of detainees and the irrelevance of the Geneva Conventions in a post-9/11 world. I’ve also heard him say, in response to the “is waterboarding torture” question, “I don’t know.”

Of course he doesn’t. No one does because if you accept the premise that waterboarding is torture, there will be an awful lot of lawyering up to do for CIA agents, Justice Dept. officials, cabinet members, even Congressmen once the cat’s out of the bag. I’m guessing more than one Bushie became a tad mortified when Rumsfeld was charged with war crimes during a recent jaunt to France. And it is, indeed, torture. Both U.S. and international courts have on many occasions over the last century tried and convicted war criminals (as well as a U.S. sheriff) for waterboarding.

Confused by all that obfuscation going on? Me too. Here’s my conversation with an imaginary White House official:

Me: If, as President Bush says, we don’t torture, then we don’t waterboard, right?

WH official: I didn’t say that.

Me: OK. We do waterboard, but since we’re doing it, it’s not torture.

WH official: I can’t comment on specific interrogation techniques.

Me: We prosecuted people for waterboarding, which was defined then—before 9/11—as torture. So, after 9/11, torture is OK?

WH official: We don’t torture. Bush said we don’t torture. He’s said it over and over again. Don’t you listen?

Me: So waterboarding isn’t torture after all?

WH official: We can’t discuss interrogation tactics.

Me: OK, but you already said that waterboarding has been done.

WH official: I said we don’t torture.

Me: I know, I heard that. But those tapes show waterboarding, right?

WH official: I can’t comment on the tapes. It’s all under investigation.

Me: Oh, I see. So Congress is going to get to the bottom of this?

WH official: Attorney General Mukasey has asked the CIA to investigate itself, with help from his office. Mukasey has advised the CIA not to talk to Congress.

Me: Congress can’t investigate the destroyed tapes?

WH official: Yes, that’s correct. It would slow things down if Congress got involved.

Me: So, I’m supposed to trust the Attorney General, the same guy who wouldn’t say whether or not waterboarding is torture, to investigate the CIA’s destruction of tapes that contain evidence of waterboarding?

White House official pats me on the head.

Me, shaking fist at sky: I’m begging you, Writers Guild, end your strike. Our country needs Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

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