Waterboarding: Torture or mere interrogation technique?

Waterboarding. This new name for something that has been around for centuries makes it sound like an Olympic sport.

The term has been getting a lot of attention lately as a result of the recent confirmation of President George Bush’s nominee, Michael Mukasey, as attorney general, replacing Alberto Gonzales.

What captured the attention of many was Mukasey’s equivocation on the issue of whether waterboarding constitutes torture in his confirmation hearings. He was confirmed by the Senate in spite of this, although with some opposition.

Modern name for water torture

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) perhaps provided some of the best historical insight to waterboarding — the modern-day name for water torture.

“While the nominee acknowledges that torture is unconstitutional,” Kennedy said, “he has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that the controlled drowning of a prisoner, waterboarding, rises to the level of torture. What is the big mystery here? Over and over again, civilian and military tribunals have found waterboarding to be an unacceptable act of torture.”

Kennedy described the barbaric technique: “Water is poured down the mouth and nose of a detainee to simulate drowning. It’s an ancient technique of tyrants.”

And he outlined the historical timeline: “In the 15th and 16th centuries, it was used by interrogators in the Spanish Inquisition. In the 19th century, it was used against slaves in this country. In World War II, it was used against us by Japan. In the 1970s, it was used against political opponents by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the military dictatorships of Chile and Argentina. Today, it’s being used against pro-democracy activists by the rulers of Burma. When we fail to reject waterboarding, this is the company that we keep.”

Illegal, yet continues

Kennedy charged that waterboarding is illegal under U.S. law. Even those who voted for Mukasey, like Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), see waterboarding as torture and illegal.

Yet, how can it be that the Bush administration has gotten away with employing this technique and rationalizing it, first by Gonzales and now by Mukasey? One possible reason is the U.S. public does not sufficiently see this technique as torture. Plus, there has been a concerted attempt to desensitize the public to torture, as in the hit TV show “24,” where torture techniques are applied and applauded.

Military opposition to torture

Still, many, especially in the military, are horrified by its use. They argue that it puts U.S. soldiers at risk for similar treatment.

Malcolm Nance, former U.S. Navy Seals chief of training, described waterboarding as “horrifying to watch” and “controlled death.”

World War II veteran Everett Reamer told Arizona’s News Herald he is no stranger to torture. “You’ve heard about the water treatment?” he said, referring to the current debate over waterboarding of suspected terrorists. “They did that to me,” he said, pointing to his 40 horrible months in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Reamer has numerous medals and citations, including a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and three presidential unit citations. And he stands adamantly against torture. Reamer told the newspaper he’s “opposed to it in all forms,” and the United States “should abide by the rules of the Geneva Conventions.”

‘Water cure’ in the Philippines

Waterboarding throughout its long history has been used as a form of torture that causes excruciating pain and can lead to death. Historian William Loren Katz, in his article “Using the ‘Water Cure’ in the Philippines,” writes, “It forces water into prisoners’ lungs, usually over and over again.”

Like Kennedy, Katz cites waterboarding’s inglorious history, but adds details: “The Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s used this torture to uncover and punish heretics, and then in the early 1550s, Spain’s inquisitors carried it overseas to root out heresy in the New World. It reappeared during the witch hysteria. Women accused of sorcery were ‘dunked’ and held under water to see if they were witches. … In World War II, Japan and Germany routinely used waterboarding on prisoners. In Vietnam, U.S. forces held bound Viet Cong captives and ‘sympathizers’ upside down in barrels of water.”

In the U.S. invasion and occupation of the Philippines that began in 1898 and lasted 12 years, U.S. officers routinely resorted to the “water cure” in order to extract information from suspects, according to Katz. And the “pro-imperialist media of the day” justified the “water cure as necessary to gain information.”

William Howard Taft, who was appointed governor of the Philippines, shocked many people when he testified before Congress that the “so-called water cure” was used “on some occasions to extract information.” At the same time, a soldier revealed that he had used the “water cure” on 160 people and only 26 had survived.

One particularly bellicose U.S. general named Frederick Funston boasted of sentencing 35 suspects to death without trial, and promoted the use of torture and civilian massacres. He also called for antiwar protesters and an editor of an opposition newspaper to be dragged out of their homes and lynched.

Torture produces truth? or lies?

Mark Twain, who was an opponent of U.S. imperialism in his day, wrote his opinion of the “water cure”: “Funston’s example has bred many imitators, and many ghastly additions to our history: the torturing of Filipinos by the awful ‘water-cure,’ for instance, to make them confess — what? Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless.”

In subsequent U.S. military trials for the purveyors of torture, all were convicted, and U.S. prestige sank to all-time lows.

War crimes and criminals

Many legal scholars have speculated that the reason Mukasey refused to acknowledge the illegality of waterboarding is that it could trigger prosecution of many administration officials for criminal or civil liability, with the potential to reach the president.

Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild and law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, provided this view in a Nov. 7 interview with “Democracy Now.” She said, “The Bush administration has tried from the beginning to insulate itself against war crimes prosecutions. Under the U.S. War Crimes Act, torture can be prosecuted as a war crime, and even if the person didn’t personally commit the torture, commanders, all the way up the chain of command to the commander in chief, can be held liable if they knew or should have known their subordinates would be torturing and they did nothing to stop or prevent it.”

Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the House Judiciary Committee during Nixon’s impeachment, wrote at The Huffington Post, “We now know the reason why Mr. Mukasey refused to acknowledge that waterboarding meets the legal definition of torture, or at the very least cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment, clearly had nothing to do with not being briefed about the procedure. The real reason, as mainstream news analysts now acknowledge, was that publicly admitting waterboarding is torture or cruel and inhuman would have put the president in jeopardy of criminal charges.”

PTSD and waterboarding

As a psychologist, I find the quibbling over whether waterboarding produces lasting harm in the recipient to be absurd. The psychological malady called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is defined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV) as “the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of … actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s personal integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close relative.”

The definition says the characteristic symptoms “include persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event, persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness, and persistent symptoms of increased arousal.” The condition is characterized by “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”

Physical attacks, terrorist attacks and torture are some of the traumatic events which can bring on PTSD. Waterboarding would certainly meet the criterion of a violent physical assault with a threat of death to the individual.

The disorder came to be widely recognized in the experiences of Vietnam veterans, many of whom have been classified by the Department of Veterans Affairs as permanently disabled and unable to work as a result of PTSD. PTSD is generally considered to be a chronic condition and can last to some extent for the rest of a person’s life.

Certainly any reasonable person would consider this to be lasting harm.

Sane media voices

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann reported Nov. 5 on an account provided by former Acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin. Levin was assigned to assess the legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and decided to submit to waterboarding himself. Olbermann said, “Daniel Levin should have a statue in his honor in Washington, right now. Instead, he was forced out as acting assistant attorney general nearly three years ago because he had the guts to do what George Bush could not do in a million years. They waterboarded him, and he wrote that even though he knew those doing it meant him no harm, he could not stop the terror screaming from inside him, could not quell the horror. ‘Waterboarding,’ he said, ‘is torture.’”

Olbermann concluded, “Now, if that’s what this is all about — you tortured not because you’re stupid … but you tortured because you’re smart enough to know it produces really authentic-sounding fiction — well then, you’re going to need all the lawyers you can find, because that crime wouldn’t just mean impeachment, would it, sir? That crime would mean George W. Bush is going to prison.”

He maintained that this is the explanation for why Gonzales, Cheney and Mukasey are unable to agree on a definition of torture. There is “the giddying prospect that maybe you could remake a nation into a fascist state so efficient and so self-sustaining that the fascism itself would be nearly invisible.” But ultimately, Olbermann said, referring to people like Levin, “these patriots will defeat you, and they will return this country to its righteous standards and to its rightful owners — the people.”

Waterboarding is a call to action, as Olbermann put it, to restore sanity and standards to our government. In 2009, who we have in the White House could be the difference between an outlaw who supports torture versus someone who follows the law and ends the torture policy.

Paul Hill (phill1917 @comcast.net) is a psychologist who writes frequently for the People’s Weekly World from Texas.