Former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared at AEI today to promote his book and again made the claim that waterboarding detainees is not torture because we use this technique on our own troops. As he put it:
“Another key point that needs to be made was that the techniques that we used were all previously used on Americans,” Cheney went on. “All of them were used in training for a lot of our own specialists in the military. So there wasn’t any technique that we used on any al Qaeda individual that hadn’t been used on our own troops first, just to give you some idea whether or not we were ‘torturing’ the people we captured.”
This isn’t a new argument. Plenty of other folks have argued that, because we subject members of the military to waterboarding in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) School (the military’s POW prep course), waterboarding detainees is not mistreatment.
It’s also a nonsensical argument.
The difference is consent. What one person consents to in one set of conditions does not make the same treatment, without consent and in other conditions, somehow less invasive or less illegal under domestic and international law. I was not waterboarded when I attended SERE school, but I endured treatment I wouldn’t willingly accept in other circumstances. If you want to waterboard me, you’d best be ready for a fight.
Export Cheney’s logic to sex. Consenting adults have sex and it’s legal, enjoyable, and essential to the survival of the species. If you accept the premise that, because you can have sex with someone with consent, it is always legal and moral to have sex with others, you’ve just declared that rape is not a crime.
Setting aside the issue of consent, waterboarding was clearly recognized as a criminal act by the laws of war and domestic statute well before we interrogated KSM. We prosecuted our own soldiers for using controlled drowning (the “water cure” and waterboarding) in the Spanish-American War and in Vietnam. We prosecuted Japanese soldiers for using waterboarding after World War II. We prosecuted a sheriff in Texas for waterboarding confessions out of prisoners.
I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times a few months back spelling out how Cheney isn’t arguing with Obama here. He’s reliving a battle he lost within the Bush administration:
The legal framework underlying waterboarding collapsed during President George W. Bush’s tenure. The White House Office of Legal Counsel in 2004 withdrew the memoranda that authorized waterboarding. The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, sponsored by former POW and torture victim Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), barred “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” treatment of any detainee in military custody. There may be an argument that waterboarding isn’t torture, but there’s no argument that it’s not cruel, inhuman and degrading…
The Supreme Court put the nail in the coffin with its Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld decision in 2006. The real import of the ruling was not that Congress had to authorize military commissions (it quickly did) but that the Geneva Conventions apply to the armed conflict with Al Qaeda. The application of the laws of war, which allow broad power to kill your enemy but provide no authority to mistreat him, brought down the legal house of cards that authorized coercive interrogation. Bush issued an executive order the next year that banned the bulk of enhanced interrogation techniques. Obama followed suit with his own order applying stricter military standards to the intelligence community.