Dick Cheney's Latest Lie About Torture

In an interview with Rush Limbaugh, he falsely insisted the Bush administration didn't do anything to its prisoners that hadn't been done to train U.S. forces

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Interviewed on Rush Limbaugh's show to promote his memoir, Dick Cheney was party to the following exchange:

CHENEY: In fact, the techniques we used were techniques that we used with our own people in training.  There wasn't anything there --

RUSH:  I'm just gonna mention that.

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY:  -- our own forces.

RUSH:  Everything you used is part of training for our own troops, including waterboarding, correct?

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY:  Correct.

See, folks? Nothing to see here. How could waterboarding be torture? We do it to our own troops! It's typical Cheney: misleading the public in the most self-serving, manipulative way, all in service of making the forced, simulated drowning of incapacitated prisoners seem perfectly anodyne. 

There are a few things to keep in mind here. One is that a small number of American troops are waterboarded so that they can be prepared if they are captured and tortured by an enemy government! In a 2009 essay in Virginia Quarterly Review, David Morris describes his experience in SERE training. The whole account is riveting, but two passages stand out in my mind.

The first attempts to quantify the misery inflicted on trainees:

How stressful is SERE exactly? It might seem a question for which there is no answer, but in 2000, on the cusp of the war on terror, a team of researchers attempted to address this very issue, to quantify in clinical terms the amount of psychological force the school exerted upon trainees. The results, published in Special Warfare, the professional journal of the Green Berets, were shocking. The researchers measured the amount of cortisol, a hormone excreted during times of mental and physical stress, present in the saliva of SERE trainees. "It was the highest amount of cortisol we'd ever heard of," one researcher was quoted as saying. A person undergoing major surgery, such as a heart transplant, can be expected to produce cortisol levels of around 700 nanomoles per liter. By contrast, the researchers examining the saliva of SERE trainees discovered an average of 900 nanomoles per liter, the highest levels ever recorded.

The second passage is shorter, but more telling:

When I got home a week later, a friend asked me how it went. I told him that I would commit suicide before I allowed myself to be captured in combat.

Bearing all that in mind, detainees held by the Bush administration were put through something much tougher. If you want to drop out of SERE, you're free to do so. As you're being waterboarded, for example, you know that you can make it stop at any time, and that the people inflicting it on you are comrades who aren't going to kill you. Surely that matters tremendously.

American service members are also waterboarded "just" once or twice. But War on Terrorism detainees? Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in a single month! And Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, also in a single month. Even if you don't think a single instance of waterboarding is torture, you've got to be daft to think inflicting it on someone scores of times doesn't qualify. And dishonest to say it's equivalent to what we do to our own troops.

Even on the Rush Limbaugh show, the molten core of the conservative movement, Cheney has to evade the full reality of what he sanctioned in order for it to sound defensible. That is telling.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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