WASHINGTON – The first secretary of the Homeland Security Department says waterboarding is torture.
"There's just no doubt in my mind — under any set of rules — waterboarding is torture," Tom Ridge said Friday in an interview with the Associated Press. Ridge had offered the same opinion earlier in the day to members of the American Bar Association at a homeland security conference.
"One of America's greatest strengths is the soft power of our value system and how we treat prisoners of war, and we don't torture," Ridge said in the interview. Ridge was secretary of the Homeland Security Department between 2003 and 2005. "And I believe, unlike others in the administration, that waterboarding was, is — and will always be — torture. That's a simple statement."
Waterboarding is a harsh interrogation tactic that was used by CIA officers in 2002 and 2003 on three alleged Al Qaeda terrorists. The tactic gives the subject the sensation of drowning.
The CIA has not used the technique since 2003, and CIA Director Michael Hayden prohibited it in 2006, according to U.S. officials. The debate was recently revived when the CIA revealed it had destroyed videotapes showing the interrogations of two alleged terrorists, both of whom were waterboarded.
Ridge's comments come a week after a report that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said he would consider waterboarding torture if it were used against him.
In a separate interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, the current Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, refused to say what he thinks of the interrogation technique. Chertoff, a former federal prosecutor and judge — who was also assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Criminal Division in 2002 — said the question should be asked in the context of a specific set of facts and a specific statute and should not be posed abstractly.
"This is too important a discussion to have based on throwing one question at somebody," Chertoff said.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey has declined so far to rule on whether waterboarding constitutes torture. An affirmative finding by Mukasey could put at risk the CIA interrogators who were authorized by the White House in 2002 to waterboard three prisoners deemed resistant to conventional techniques.
Ridge, homeland security adviser and then secretary from 2001 to 2005, said he was not involved in the discussions about CIA interrogation techniques. Rather, his department was a consumer of any intelligence gleaned from them.
"I have no idea how any of the intelligence community extrapolated any information from anybody — where they got it, how they got it, and from whom they got it. But waterboarding is torture."
Ridge, a lawyer, wades into the waterboarding debate with both a military and civilian background. He is also a former Pennsylvania governor and congressman. He has since started his own homeland security consulting firm.
"As a former soldier, I will tell you that we go to great pains, and a lot of men and women, who serve in the military at risk of their own lives, do everything they can to minimize civilian casualties and certainly do everything they can to respect the Geneva Convention."
The House and Senate intelligence committees want to prohibit the CIA from using any interrogation techniques not allowed by the military. That list includes waterboarding. If their intelligence bill containing the restriction is approved by Congress, it almost certainly will face a veto from President Bush.