Strong opinions, weakly held

Clearing things up on waterboarding

Today’s Washington Post article on Vice President Cheney’s enthusiastic endorsement of waterboarding in an interview finally does what I wish more torture-related articles do, which is give a full background of the technique in question. Here’s how the article ends:

In waterboarding — one of a number of drowning-simulation techniques that date to the Spanish Inquisition — a prisoner is generally strapped down with his feet higher than his head. Water is then poured on his face while his nose and mouth are covered by a cloth. The technique produces an intense sensation of being close to suffocation and drowning, according to interrogation experts and human rights advocates.

The Khmer Rouge and other outlaw regimes have employed the method, and it has been condemned by many human rights and military lawyers as a clear example of illegal torture.

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.

When torture proponents discuss waterboarding and other forms of torture, they use the same approach I talked about yesterday with Rush Limbaugh’s response to Michael J Fox’s ad, which is to deny the facts and instead pretend like torture is no big deal. It’s essential that the media educate people on what these approaches are and how they have been used in the past. Glad to see the Washington Post taking on that responsibility.


  1. A friend posted this guess as to what waterboarding actually might consist of, and I found it compelling; it sounds like much more of a big deal than simply pouring water on someone’s face.

  2. Why guess? See for yourself.

    Anyone will have a hard time convincing me that waterboarding is a fate worse than death.

    As you can plainly see, there is no sustained physical damage to the individual. It is a strongly coercive technique that in the hands of duly authorized military personnel can generate useful intelligence. It is something that our special forces must undergo in order to complete their training. In the proper context, it can be useful, and any president would be foolish to ignore its applications.

  3. The Current TV clip is interesting, but I wonder if that actually depicts waterboarding as it’s practiced by the CIA or US forces now.

    From an ABC News report:

    According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

    That doesn’t sound like the technique in the Current video, where the subject lasted for at 24 minutes.

  4. Well, yes. He was special forces and was trained on how to survive and resist the technique. Still, I’m not sure I find the 14 second figure credible at all. My 9 year old daughter can hold her breath for 14 seconds. And the description of the technique calls for the water to be poured while the subject is breathing. Obviously it takes several difficult breaths for the effect to work. Anybody who has even had a resort course in SCUBA ought to know how to keep a clear head where there’s risk of drowning.

  5. Who says that it’s a fate worse than death. There are few fates worth than death. The problem is that it’s torture.

  6. Check out THIS VIDEO. It’s really, really funny. It’s called “Let’s All Waterboard!” I guess you probably figured out it wasn’t put out by the RNC.

  7. That CurrentTV video is at best a stunt – the key difference is whether the people being interrogated know what to expect: if you’re a US soldier undergoing SERES training or a curious civilian, you aren’t wondering whether the people doing this actually do have orders to kill you, whether the doctor is there to keep you alive or simply to keep the interrogation in the most effective discomfort level, etc.

    Put another way, if one of the people claiming waterboarding is no big deal were snatched off the street and interrogated by unknown, probably hostile parties they might then be considered qualified to dismiss complaints.

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