McConnell: No, I Did Not Say Waterboarding Was Torture

Last month, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell caused a stir when he seemed to admit in a New Yorker article that waterboarding would be torture if done to him.

But as I pointed out at the time, McConnell actually made a strange qualification. He has a problem with his nose, he said (“I don’t know if it’s some deviated septum or mucus membrane, but water just rushes in”). So waterboarding would be torture to him — because swimming without covering his nose is torture to him.

Coverage of Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker piece, however, tended to focus on his statement, “Whether it’s torture by anyone’s else definition, for me it would be torture.”

And in today’s Senate intelligence committee hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pressed him on this point. And McConnell insisted that Wright and the New Yorker had taken the quote “totally out of context.” And waterboarding, he wants everyone to know, “is a legal technique used in a specific set of circumstances. You have to know the circumstances to be able to make the judgment.”

Well, we’ve posted McConnell’s remarks today alongside the original excerpt from the New Yorker piece so you can decide for yourself whether McConnell was taken “totally out of context.” It seems to me that he was not — and that it’s just his position that is confusing. It’s apparent from McConnell’s remarks here and to Wright that he believes that waterboarding, artfully applied, is unquestionably legal. You just get the sensation of drowning. But “waterboarding taken to its extreme could be death,” he explained today. “It could drown someone.” And that seems to be where he draws the line.From today’s hearing:

FEINSTEIN: And I was reading a New Yorker article about your interview on the subject of waterboarding and coercive interrogation techniques, and I gather that you felt that, for yourself, if used, waterboarding would, in fact, constitute torture. Is that correct?

MCCONNELL: No, ma’am, it’s not correct. The discussion was about something entirely different. It was a personal discussion about when I grew up and what I was doing as a youngster.

And the discussion was framed around being a water safety instructor. Some people — I’m one of them — have difficulty putting my head underwater. If my head goes underwater, I ingest water in my nose.
So what I was having the discussion with the journalist is about being a water safety instructor and teaching people to swim. He said, “Well, what about when water goes up your nose?” And I said, “That would be torture.” I said, “It would be very painful for me.” Then it turned into a discussion of waterboarding.

Ma’am, I made no statement or judgment regarding the legality of waterboarding. We’ve discussed it openly here what it is. Waterboarding taken to its extreme could be death. It could drown someone.

FEINSTEIN: Then the quote that I’m reading directly from the article, “Whether it’s torture by anyone’s else definition, for me it would be torture,” is not correct?

MCCONNELL: I said it — and what I was talking about was water going into my nose, given the context of swimming and teaching people to swim. So it’s out of context.

Now, when the journalist was checking facts, he called me back and said, “Here’s what I’m going to say.” And I said, “That’s not the subject of our discussion, and I ask you not to put that in the article.” We argued for 90 minutes.

I said, “That will be taken out of context. It is not what our discussion was all about.” And he said, “Well, you said it. It’s in my article. It’s out of my control.”

So here we are. I said to him, “I will be sitting in front of a committee having this discussion, arguing about what I said that was totally out of context.”

The question, is waterboarding a legal technique? And everything I know, based on the appropriate authority to make that judgment, it is a legal technique used in a specific set of circumstances. You have to know the circumstances to be able to make the judgment.

From Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker piece:

“You know what waterboarding is?” [McConnell] asked. “You lay somebody on this table, or put them in an inclined position, and put a washcloth over their face, and you just drip water right here” — he pointed to his nostrils. “Try it! What happens is, water will go up your nose. And so you will get the sensation of potentially drowning. That’s all waterboarding is.”

I asked if he considered that torture.

McConnell refused to answer directly, but he said, “My own definition of torture is something that would cause excruciating pain.”

Did waterboarding fit that description?

Referring to his teen-age days as a lifeguard, he said, “I know one thing. I’m a water-safety instructor, but I cannot swim without covering my nose. I don’t know if it’s some deviated septum or mucus membrane, but water just rushes in.” For him, he said, “waterboarding would be excruciating. If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can’t imagine how painful! Whether it’s torture by anybody else’s definition, for me it would be torture.”

I queried McConnell again, later, about his views on waterboarding, since this exchange seemed to suggest that he personally condemned it. He rejected that interpretation. “You can do waterboarding lots of different ways,” he said. “I assume you can get to the point that a person is actually drowning.” That would certainly be torture, he said. The definition didn’t seem very different from John Yoo’s. The reason that he couldn’t be more specific, McConnell said, is that “if it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it.”