Cheney: 'Can't Claim Perfection' on No-Torture Policy

V.P.: U.S. doesn't torture detainees, but can't monitor every interrogation.

January 14, 2009, 11:36 AM

Jan. 14, 2009— -- Responding to accusations from a top Pentagon official that at least one Guantanamo detainee was tortured during interrogation, Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged there may have been a "problem" with the way military personnel interrogated individual prisoners.

"I can't claim perfection," he said on "News Hour with Jim Lehrer," while reiterating once again the United States does not approve of or engage in torture as a matter of policy.

Cheney cited the soldiers who abused Iraqi inmates in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal as an example of interrogators "who weren't managed properly."

Susan J. Crawford, who was named by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to serve as the convening legal authority of military commissions, told the Washington Post that the treatment of Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al Qahtani, the so-called "20th hijacker," "met the legal definition of torture." She added that she decided to dismiss charges against Qahtani because he had been tortured.

The revelation is the first time that a senior administration official has called the United States' treatment of detainees torture.

"The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent," Crawford told the Washington Post.

Crawford's description of the techniques as torture contradicts President George W. Bush and Cheney, who have insisted the United States never tortured any detainees.

Cheney addressed Crawford's statement during the "News Hour" interview.

"We don't torture," he said.

"I heard about this individual, this is Mr. Qahtani, who was the 20th hijacker," Cheney said. "He tried to get into the United States so he could get on one of the airplanes on 9/11 and fly into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center.

"[Crawford] said all of the techniques that were utilized were authorized. None of them were in violation of the basic fundamental tenets that were used out there," Cheney added. "She was, as I understand it, complaining about the way in which, or the -- well, specifically the way in which they were administered."

Cheney said he couldn't be certain that mistakes were never made with an individual prisoner.

"What I can say is that in terms of what the policies of the administration were, both at the White House level and then at the Defense Department, was that enhanced interrogation was OK," Cheney said.

He added, "I can tell you it produced phenomenal results for us and a great many Americans are alive today because we did all that. And I think those are the important considerations."

Crawford: 'I Was Embarrassed'

Crawford told the Washington Post that when she reviewed Qahtani's interrogation file she was shocked by what she found.

"I was upset by it," she told the Washington Post. "I was embarrassed by it. If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women or others in foreign service are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain?"

Crawford's statements come in sharp contrast to previous comments by senior administration officials, who have steadfastly maintained that the U.S. was not using torture.

As recently as last month, Cheney told ABC's Jonathan Karl, "On the question of so-called torture, we don't do torture. We never have. It's not something that this administration subscribes to. Again, we proceeded very cautiously. We checked. We had the Justice Department issue the requisite opinions in order to know where the bright lines were that you could not cross."

A Defense Department spokeswoman said that Crawford is not doing any more interviews at this time and released a statement on behalf of the Pentagon. The statement said that some techniques are no longer in use, but does not directly address Crawford's broader allegation regarding the combination of techniques.

Treatment of Detainees Now Up to Obama

"The investigations concluded the interrogation methods used at [Guantanamo Bay], including the special interrogation techniques used with Qhatani in 2002, were lawful," the statement said.

"Some of the aggressive questioning techniques used on al Qhatani, although permissible at the time, are no longer allowed in the updated Army field manual."

According to Qahtani's lawyers and military logs that were first reported by Time magazine, Qahtani was subject to severe sleep deprivation, isolation, threats and attacks by dogs and prolonged periods of being held in stress positions.

Crawford's comments are sure to embolden critics of the Bush administration who argue that officials should be held accountable for the treatment of detainees.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., demanded today that the treatment of Qahtani be investigated by a special prosecutor.

Conyers, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has argued in the past for a blue ribbon commission to look into accusations of torture. He ramped up his call today to include a special prosecutor as well.

"When the head of the military commissions declares that charges against a 9/11 conspirator had to be dropped because we tortured him, the need for a bipartisan commission to bring the facts to light -- and for a special prosecutor to ensure accountability -- can no longer be denied," Conyers said in a statement.

That decision will now fall to President-elect Obama.

This past weekend, when ABC News' chief Washington correspondent, George Stephanopoulos, pressed Obama on the topic, Obama left it up to the attorney general nominee Eric Holder.

"My general belief is that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past," Obama told Stephanopoulos.

Critics of the Bush policies want Obama to do more.

"The Bush administration engaged in a far-reaching assault on our nation's freedoms," said Caroline Frederickson, director of the Washington Legislative Center, in a statement.

"The next administration needs to let the world know on day one that this chapter in American policy is over, that America will be an advocate for human rights and that Americans will once again have an America that we can be proud of," Frederickson said.

Qahtani remains an inmate at Guantanamo Bay, held without charge.