US President George W. Bush said the US does not torture prisoners, trying to calm a storm created when US 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 on Friday that Cheney was not talking about water boarding but would not explain what he did mean.
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.
Democrats also pointed to Cheney's statement.
"Is the White House that was for torture before it was against it, now for torture again?" said Democratic Senator John Kerry. Kerry, in his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 2004, had been skewered by Bush for saying he had voted for war funds before he later voted against them.
Cheney triggered the flap in an interview on Tuesday by radio broadcaster Scott Hennen of WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. 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.
"Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture," Cheney said. "We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."
On Friday, Cheney called reporters to his cabin on Air Force Two as he returned from a trip to Missouri and South Carolina.
"I did not talk about specific techniques and won't," the vice president said. "I didn't say anything about water boarding. ... He [Hennen] didn't even use that phrase."
"I have said that the interrogation program for a selected number of detainees is very important," Cheney said. "[It] has been I think one of the most valuable intelligence programs we have. I believe it has allowed us to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States."
At his photo op, Bush said, "This country doesn't torture, we're not going to 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."