Anatomy of a Story: The Veep and a Dunk in Water

By October 30, 2006Media Relations

We depart from the usual manufacturing-related subjects to enter the realm of media analysis, or rather, media-frenzy analysis. Last Tuesday, October 24, WDAY radio host Scott Hennen allowed us to join him for his White House Radio Day interview with Vice President Richard B. Cheney. It was a heck of a get for the Fargo, N.D. broadcaster; Cheney did only three radio interviews that day, the other two being with Juan Williams of National Public Radio and Sean Hannity, the prominent conservative talker.

The interview occurred about 10 a.m. in the Vice President’s West Wing office, and for the first day or so, no one in the media outside of WDAY paid much attention to Cheney’s comments. And then the story blew up, as they say. And today, six days later, the interview remains prominent in the news (or at least in Al Kamen’s reliably mocking “In the Loop” column in the Washington Post).

The topics? Waterboarding, interrogations, terrorists and perfidious CNN. And since we were there at the story’s inception, we thought’s readers might like a behind-the-scenes account of how a story starts small and becomes HUGE (and increasingly hysterical).

A lengthy post follows below the fold. And we emphasize that the NAM does not have any position on the issues examined.

We were brought into the Vice President’s office as Juan Williams departed, a little after 10 a.m. Tuesday. (Williams interview here.) The Veep is at his desk, which is covered in briefing books. A few pleasantries — grandparents farmed in the Little Snake River Valley of Wyoming — and Hennen sets up his digital recorder. A personal Olympus handheld serves as a backup.

Here is the passage that excited all the attention, eventually:

Q [I’ve] had people call and say, please, let the Vice President know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we’re all for it, if it saves American lives. Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I do agree. And I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high value detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that’s been a very important tool that we’ve had to be able to secure the nation. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
provided us with enormously valuable information about how many there are, about how they plan, what their training processes are and so forth, we’ve learned a lot. We need to be able to continue that.

The Congress recently voted on this question of military commissions and our authority to continue the interrogation program. It passed both Houses, fortunately. The President signed it into law, but the fact is 177 Democrats in the House — or excuse me, 162 Democrats in
the House voted against it, and 32 out of 44 senators — Democratic senators voted against it. We wouldn’t have that authority today if they were in charge. That’s a very important issue in this campaign.

Are we going to allow the executive branch to have the authority granted and authorized by the Congress to be able to continue to collect the intelligence we need to defend the nation.

Q Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the Vice President “for torture.” We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in. We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we’re party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.

And thanks to the leadership of the President now, and the action of the Congress, we have that authority, and we are able to continue to program.

Two points:

  • Hennen was relaying the vox populi from North Dakota and Minnesota, the commonsensical notion that if terrorists have valuable information about a pending attack or mass murder, physical coercion is a reasonable course of action. A “no brainer,” if you will.
  • Seemed clear from the context the question about “dunking” was a reference to waterboarding (which actually doesn’t involve “dunking” so much as “pouring.”) But, to be sure, the question did not refer specifically to the practice.
  • Minor technical problems delayed the posting of the transcript on the White House website of Hennen’s interview until 5 p.m. or so, by which time the story line-up has been set for the evening broadcasts and the next day’s papers. Which meant that Sean Hannity’s interview made the news instead. Being passed over for broader dissemination is usually a disappointment and frustration for local reporters/interviewers, and it was in this case, too, especially since the Vice President’s comments about CNN broadcasting terrorist snuff-films also seemed newsworthy.

    But one reporter from the Washington Bureau of McClatchy News Service picked up on the transcript. Jonathan S. Landay wrote a story Wednesday featuring this introduction:

    WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney has confirmed that U.S. interrogators subjected captured senior al-Qaida suspects to a controversial interrogation technique called “water-boarding,” which creates a sensation of drowning.

    Cheney indicated that the Bush administration doesn’t regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it. “It’s a no-brainer for me,” Cheney said at one point in an interview.

    Nowhere in the interview did the Vice President confirm the use of waterboarding. It’s a reasonable assumption, but an assumption it is — a reporter’s assumption that somehow became news.

    Lefty bloggers then react to the McClatchy story, giving vent to their outrage and outrage to their vent. For example, here, and the DailyKos diarist takes credit for pushing McClatchy into the story. The querulous Andrew Sullivan, who writes one of the more widely read blogs, engaged in his usual name-calling with this 11:07 a.m. Thursday post:

    Yesterday was a vital day of clarity for what has happened to America in the Bush presidency. It occurred in one of the more sycophantic interviews I’ve ever read by “journalist” Scott Hennen, of WDAY Hot Talk. Here’s the transcript, proudly posted on Cheney’s own website:

    Where to start? “Sycophantic?” Really? How about respectful, imparting a widely held point of view in Middle America? Hennen is a talk-show host, by the way, not a reporter, so scare quotes around the word, “journalist” are just gratuitous. And “proudly posted?” The Vice President office posts transcripts of interviews, friendly and hostile alike. It’s a ministerial act, not an endorsement.

    Meanwhile, Scott Hennen is flooded with e-mails back at WDAY, calling him names and saying he ought to be waterboarded himself.

    The story bubbles along in the blogosphere Wednesday and Thursday — Amnesty International sends out a news release — but the big break that pushed it into one of the major stories of the week was the Washington Post’s story by Dan Eggen on page A-9 Friday.

    Vice President Cheney said this week that dunking terrorism suspects in water during questioning was a “no-brainer,” prompting complaints from human rights advocates that he was endorsing the use of a controversial technique known as waterboarding on prisoners held by the United States.

    In an interview Tuesday with Scott Hennen, a conservative radio show host from Fargo, N.D., Cheney agreed with Hennen’s assertion that “a dunk in water” may yield valuable intelligence from terrorism suspects. He also referred to information gleaned from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the captured architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but stopped short of explicitly saying what techniques were used.

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

    “Well, it’s a no-brainer for me,” Cheney said, “but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in.”

    The comments underscore continuing uncertainty over precisely which techniques can be used legally during CIA interrogations of terrorism suspects. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers have said recent legislation that established ground rules for interrogations should effectively bar waterboarding and other methods that are viewed as violations of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. criminal law.

    It’s a reasonably balanced and thorough article, eschewing hysterics. The final paragraph promotes an inaccuracy, though, one that’s widely repeated:

    In 1947, the United States prosecuted a Japanese soldier for war crimes and sentenced him to 15 years hard labor for using the technique on a U.S. prisoner.

    That’s incomplete and misleading, and Senator Kennedy has used the assertion as an anti-Administration talking point. Yukio Asano was prosecuted for many, many crimes, not just an isolated case of waterboarding:

    Defendant: Asano, Yukio

    Docket Date: 53/ May 1 – 28, 1947, Yokohama, Japan

    Charge: Violation of the Laws and Customs of War: 1. Did willfully and unlawfully mistreat and torture PWs. 2. Did unlawfully take and convert to his own use Red Cross packages and supplies intended for PWs.

    Specifications:beating using hands, fists, club; kicking; water torture; burning using cigarettes; strapping on a stretcher head downward

    Verdict: 15 years CHL

    It’s a widely observed media phenomenon that the Washington Post and the New York Times have it within their power to set the news agenda, to make a small story big, and a bigger story a media campaign. Once Eggen’s story appeared in the Post, other reporters sat up and took note. And Friday’s White House briefing with Press Secretary Tony Snow featured the kind of reporter hectoring that renders the Press Corps so unpopular. Thirty-two-hundred words on dunking. (Transcript here.)Here’s part of Snow’s response, an example of politically useful ambiguity:

    MR. SNOW: I’ll tell you what he said. He was asked the question, “You dunk somebody’s head in the water to save a life, is it a no-brainer?” And also, if you read the rest of the answer, he also — the Vice President, who earlier had also been asked about torture, he said, “We don’t torture.”

    Let me give you the no-brainers here. No-brainer number one is, we don’t torture. No-brainer number two: We don’t break the law, our own or international law. No-brainer number three: The Vice President doesn’t give away questioning techniques. And number four, the administration does believe in legal questioning techniques of known killers whose questioning can, in fact, be used to save American lives. The Vice President says he was talking in general terms about a questioning program that is legal to save American lives, and he was not referring to water boarding.

    Q Then how can you say that he’s not referring to water boarding, when it was very clear, when you look at the whole context, not only that specific question —

    MR. SNOW: Does the word —

    Q — but the one before?

    MR. SNOW: Did the word “water boarding” appear?

    Q It came up in the context of talking about interrogation techniques and the entire debate that has been conducted in this country.

    MR. SNOW: I understand that. I’ll tell you what the Vice President said. You can push all you want, wasn’t referring to water boarding and would not talk about techniques.

    Well, sure seemed the topic was waterboarding when Hennen asked the question.

    Later Friday, President Bush and the Vice President both try to calm the waters, walk back the story, move on. The AP’s White House correspondent, Terence Hunt, reported:

    WASHINGTON – President Bush said Friday the United States does not torture prisoners, trying to calm a controversy created when Vice President Dick Cheney embraced the suggestion that a “dunk in water” might be useful to get terrorist suspects to talk.

    Human rights groups complained that Cheney’s words amounted to an endorsement of a torture technique known as water boarding, in which the victim believes he is about to drown. The White House insisted Cheney was not talking about water boarding but would not explain what he meant.

    Less than two weeks before midterm congressional elections, the White House was put on the defensive as news of Cheney’s remark spread. Bush was asked about it at a White House photo opportunity with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow was pelted with questions at two briefings with reporters.

    Aaaah, so it’s a campaign story now, with the White House “put on the defensive.” Funny how most everything is cast in that light as Election Day nears. See, the story is provoking outrage, harming Republican chances. Of course.

    The story leads two local news broadcast that evening in Washington. Meanwhile, back in Fargo, listeners continue to weigh in on Hennen’s show. An Upper Midwest consensus is forming: What’s the big deal? Dunking a terrorist’s head in water — or waterboarding or worse — is a reasonable act when fighting a war against evil. Or so many conclude.

    Hennen also interviews Michael Barone on Friday, who observes, “I think that Americans should be concerned about people who are trying to destroy us, and I’m quite appalled at the impulse that seems to be lively among many liberals and Democrats that we should treat Prisoners of War, who are unlawful combatants under the Geneva Convention, the same we treat domestic citizens when they’re arrested for a crime. I think that’s lunacy.”

    Wolf Blitzer hauls out the “dunk” story — which he thought was reported back in North Dakota –on CNN’s “Situation Room” to ambush Lynne Cheney the Vice President’s wife, who is promoting her book, “Fifty States: A Family Adventure Across America.” Mrs. Cheney isn’t buying any of Blitzer’s criticism, and turns the interview back on him, asking about the terrorist video tapes. Transcript here:

    L. CHENEY: Well, all right. Wolf, I’m here to talk about my book. But if you want to talk about distortion …

    BLITZER: We’ll talk about your book.

    L. CHENEY: Right, but what is CNN doing? Running terrorist tape of terrorists shooting Americans. I mean, I thought Duncan Hunter asked you a very good question and you didn’t answer it. Do you want us to win?

    BLITZER: The answer of course is we want the United States to win. We are Americans. There’s no doubt about that. Do you think we want terrorists to win.

    L. CHENEY: Then why are you running terrorist propaganda?

    BLITZER: With all due respect, this is not terrorist propaganda.

    L. CHENEY: Oh, Wolf.

    In Fargo, Hennen makes note of the Lynne Cheney interview and offers his concluding thoughts about the media’s reaction to his interview with the Vice President:

    Speaking of the slow-news day MSM feeding frenzy, I was out of the office yesterday afternoon (family time, much more important) so I was only able to do a handful of the interviews requested. Here is what I said:

    “The intent of the question was to relay the gratitude of common-sense listeners to my radio show, who are very thankful that we have a President and a Vice President who are doing everything they can to protect the American people. I wish more people would pay attention to the Vice Presidents answers about the use of terrorist propaganda by CNN or his historic examples of the terrorists influencing elections. That is where the American discussion should be days before an election.”

    Oh, Scott. That’s just not how it works.

    The story remains alive. BBC offered a lengthy “analysis” of the Vice President’s predilections Sunday, and as noted way up above, Washington Post’s Al Kamen wrote about the Press Corps’ pestering of Snow.

    But it’s been almost a week now, and by all rights, the story should be subsiding.

    Anyway, just a long, circuitous path for a news story that certainly WAS news…at least after the Washington Post found it. Four days after the fact.

    UPDATE: So circuitous, the stories wind through Munich. Much to the delight of the renowned anti-Americans at the Sueddeutschezeitung.

    US-Vizepräsident rechtfertigt Folter
    Knapp zwei Wochen vor den Kongresswahlen hat die US-Regierung ein Problem: Vizepräsident Cheney hat in einem Interview eine äußerst brutale Foltertechnik “eine Selbstverständlichkeit” genannt.

    U.S. Vice President Justifies Torture
    A short two weeks before the congressional elections, the U.S. government has a problem. In an interview, Vice President Cheney called a demonstrably brutal torture practice “a no brainer.”

    [Actually, something like: “IGoes without saying.”]

    And Agence France Press bruits:

    La Maison-Blanche s’est débattue vendredi avec de récents propos du vice-président, essayant de convaincre que Dick Cheney ne défendait pas la torture quand il a dit qu’on pouvait plonger la tête des terroristes dans l’eau pendant les interrogatoires.

    «Cela va de soi pour moi», a déclaré M. Cheney mardi à l’animateur conservateur d’une radio de Fargo (Dakota du Nord, nord) qui lui demandait si «plonger quelqu’un dans l’eau (allait) de soi si cela (pouvait) sauver des vies».

    “Plonger la tête des terroristes dans l’eau?” Well, I should say so.

    UPDATE 2: Foxnews’ Neil Cavuto interviewed the Vice President Monday. Cavuto asked about the earlier interview. Transcript here.

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    Join the discussion 5 Comments

    • Greg says:

      Really folks……Why do we care what the French and the Germans think? We have all seen that they are only going to behave in a fashion that furthers their own financial interests. they have little or no concern for life, Iraqi, American or otherwise. They just want control and to be able to do business in the Arab world, regardless of the consequences, so long as their economies benefit from such endeavors. In short, they are simply dishonest, egotistical(egotistical frenchmen?…say it ain’t so), supremacist (in Germany???…. nawwwww), A-holes.

      Anyone want to buy my Beamer?

      Think about it folks…..theres a message for you in there somewhere!

    • smintheus says:

      Carter, Digging out comments by the Vice President in which he endorses torture, on an obscure radio program in North Dakota, is not breaking a story? Perhaps in your world.

      Hennen’s interview was the story. He’s a right-wing nut (witness his invitation to Cheney to resume “Shock and Awe” bombing in Iraq). He was not seeking to expose the VP’s love affair with torture. He was tossing Cheney what were supposed to be softball questions…Republican talking points about what those crazy critics of the administration “don’t get”. The fact that Hennen was part of the story was underlined when he tried to cover up Cheney’s gaffe by distancing himself from the question he asked Cheney.

      Krusher: interesting that you think there’s nothing newsworthy when the Vice President of the United States endorses a form of torture that, until this administration, the US condemned when it’s been practiced by other regimes. That’s called moral bankruptcy.

    • carter says:

      Fair enough, Michael, but you know, a blog comment on an official transcript isn’t really “breaking a story.” Scott broke the story.

    • krusher says:


      You have documented an excellent example of another nothing story twisted to hurt this country.

    • smintheus says:

      Carter, for one who delights in twitting others for their mistakes, omissions, and bias, you don’t manage to avoid these either.

      “The Daily Kos diarist” you mention has a name: Michael Clark, aka ‘smintheus’. That’s me. You somehow neglect to mention that I did in fact break this story on Tuesday at my own blog,, only a few hours after the transcript was posted at the White House.

      Thus your snark about nobody getting the story until days later is demonstrably false. Also, your snark directed at “lefty bloggers” who gave outrage to their vent only after McClatchy’s report appeared — also demonstrably false.

      As for your own biases, they’re glaring. You’re prepared to assume that Cheney and Hennen were endorsing waterboarding, but you want to criticize reporters for assuming further that Cheney was indicating that the US does use waterboarding? How does that work, exactly? As in “I endorse protecting the U.S. from foreign enemies, but that’s not to say my administration actually has ever done it.”???

      Some extremely mild criticism of Snow here, but harsher criticism of journalists for asking questions about this matter? What, is state-practiced torture a trivial matter to you?

      Meanwhile, we have the Vice President, his spokeswoman, and the President’s spokesman, and the VP’s wife all lying in public by denying that Cheney was talking about waterboarding. But for that little matter of integrity, you’re snark appears to be entirely exhausted.

      – Michael Clark, aka ‘smintheus’