Alex Massie

Waterboarding for Slow Learners

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Astonishingly there remain some people who don't think that waterboarding prisoners rises to the level of torture. In Dick Cheney's off-hand formulation it's merely "dunking in water" - as though the process was some kind of ride at the funfair or comparable to having a bucket of gloop tipped over you in a TV game show.

Helpfully, Mark Benjamin has a piece at Salon explaining how it really works:

Interrogators pumped detainees full of so much water that the CIA turned to a special saline solution to minimize the risk of death, the documents show. The agency used a gurney "specially designed" to tilt backwards at a perfect angle to maximize the water entering the prisoner's nose and mouth, intensifying the sense of choking – and to be lifted upright quickly in the event that a prisoner stopped breathing.

The documents also lay out, in chilling detail, exactly what should occur in each two-hour waterboarding "session." Interrogators were instructed to start pouring water right after a detainee exhaled, to ensure he inhaled water, not air, in his next breath. They could use their hands to "dam the runoff" and prevent water from spilling out of a detainee's mouth. They were allowed six separate 40-second "applications" of liquid in each two-hour session – and could dump water over a detainee's nose and mouth for a total of 12 minutes a day. Finally, to keep detainees alive even if they inhaled their own vomit during a session – a not-uncommon side effect of waterboarding – the prisoners were kept on a liquid diet. The agency recommended Ensure Plus.

[...]These torture guidelines were contained in a ream of internal government documents made public over the past year, including a legal review of Bush-era CIA interrogations by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility released late last month.

Then there's this:

The CIA's waterboarding regimen was so excruciating, the memos show, that agency officials found themselves grappling with an unexpected development: detainees simply gave up and tried to let themselves drown. "In our limited experience, extensive sustained use of the waterboard can introduce new risks," the CIA's Office of Medical Services wrote in its 2003 memo. "Most seriously, for reasons of physical fatigue or psychological resignation, the subject may simply give up, allowing excessive filling of the airways and loss of consciousness."

The agency's medical guidelines say that after a case of "psychological resignation" by a detainee on the waterboard, an interrogator had to get approval from a CIA doctor before doing it again.

I don't doubt that such techniques can, sometimes, "work" but that's not the same as supposing that the same, or better, more accurate, information could not have been unconvered using other means. And, anyway, if you end up with a dead suspect it's hard to claim that waterboarding "worked". 

And, finally, there's this:

NOTE: In order to best inform future medical judgments and recommendations, it is important that every application of the waterboard be thoroughly documented: how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment."

Ah, the sweet science of torture.

Occasionally you hear people boasting about the medical supervision the CIA insisted upon during interrogations as though this advances the case that this was not torture in any commonly understood definition of the term. In fact it does quite the opposite: if you need doctors present to make sure that the suspects don't die during interrogation then the reasonable assumption must be that the suspects are being harshly mistreated and, in these instances, tortured.

Sometimes, of course, the argument is made that since US troops sometimes undergo waterboarding at SERE school it can't really be that tough, right? Wrong. Here's Matthew Alexander, a former CIA interrogator:

Another mischaracterization in Courting Disaster is Thiessen's claim that CIA water-boarding is identical to the water-boarding given American troops in training. Thiessen calls it "absurd" to believe we would torture our own troops. But if it were the same as the training given American troops, detainees would be told beforehand that it's temporary and voluntary; they'd have a codeword to make it stop at any time; and be reassured that it would not harm them permanently. Real water-boarding—unlike resistance training—exploits the real fear of death. The detainee does not know when, or if, it will stop.

And that makes all the difference in the world. Anyway, as Benjamin's piece details, these methods, used in conjunction with other techniques, were not used in the same way as at SERE. So that entire argument it utterly bogus. Again, the test is simple: if Saddam Hussein had treated a captured British or American soldier or spy in this fashion we would, quite rightly, have been outraged. But at least we might not have been surprised that this is how Saddam and his sons behaved.

Sic transit gloria Americana
and all that.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternationalterrorismtorture