Asked during a US radio interview on Tuesday if "dunking a terrorist in water" was an acceptable practice, Cheney replied: "It's a no-brainer for me."

 

Human rights groups say Cheney's words amount to an endorsement of the torture technique of "water boarding," in which prisoners are tied to boards with their faces wrapped in towels and water is poured over their heads to simulate the sensation of drowning.

 

Human Rights Watch, a New York based organisation, said Cheney’s statement was "the Bush administration's first clear endorsement" of the torture practice. 

 

"New low"

 

Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement: "Vice-president Cheney's advocacy of water boarding sets a new human rights low at a time when human rights is already scraping the bottom of the Bush administration barrel.

 

"What's really a no-brainer is that no US official, much less a vice-president, should champion torture."

 

"Is the White House that was for torture before it was against it, now for torture again?"

John Kerry, democrat senator 

The furore has forced the republican Bush administration to go on the defensive two weeks before congressional elections are held on November 7.

 

John Kerry, a democrat senator and former presidential candidate, said: "Is the White House that was for torture before it was against it, now for torture again?"

 

George Bush, the US president, when asked about Cheney's remark at a White House press briefing on Friday, said: "This country doesn't torture ... We will interrogate people we pick up off the battlefield to determine whether or not they've got information that will be helpful to protect the country."

 

"No torture"

 

Cheney said on Friday he had not used the term water boarding during the interview.

 

He said: "I don't talk about techniques ... I have said that the interrogation programme for a select number of detainees is very important."

 

Tony Snow, a White House spokesman, said at a press briefing on Friday: "The vice president says he was talking in general terms about a questioning programme that is legal to save American lives and he was not referring to water boarding."

 

In the radio interview by radio broadcaster Scott Hennen of North Dakota's WDAY station, Hennen said callers had told him, "Please let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves lives."

 

"Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" Hennen asked.

 

Cheney said, "Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticised as being the vice-president for torture.

 

"We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

 

Secret prisons

 

US interrogation techniques came under scrutiny after evidence emerged of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after the revelation last year that the CIA ran secret prisons outside the United States for terrorism suspects.

 

"I think vice-president Cheney's remarks make it clear that what was passed by Congress is sufficiently nonspecific to allow the administration to interpret it however they wish"

Byron Dorgan, democrat senator

The possibility of water boarding being used as a technique was a factor in a revolt by three senior republican senators in September against a Bush proposal for a new law allowing tough CIA interrogations of terrorism suspects.

 

The White House has refused to describe what interrogation techniques will be allowed under the programme.

 

Byron Dorgan, North Dakota democrat senator, said Cheney's remarks showed that the legislation that was eventually
approved was too vague.

 

He said, "I think vice-president Cheney's remarks make it clear that what was passed by Congress is sufficiently non-specific to allow the administration to interpret it however they wish."

 

A new US Army manual, released last month, bans torture and degrading treatment of prisoners, explicitly barring water boarding and other procedures.