Friday, August 1, 2008

Waterboarding – Aquatic Sport or Torture?

Night-time talk show host Jay Leno recently did an on-the-street survey in which he asked random urban Americans questions that just about anybody who watches TV news (let alone anyone who ever went to grade school) should know the answers to – things like: Who is the President of the Senate? What is Gitmo? And so on. About the only give-away question he didn't ask was the classic Groucho Marx bonus query on the iconic comic's 1950s TV game show, You Bet Your Life: Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?

And like the responses Groucho used to get, the ones Leno's survey elicited were as hilarious as they were pathetic, in a country where information and the technology to acquire it are available to the point of overload.

One question I don’t believe Mr. Leno asked, but which he might well have, if he had wanted to hear some truly side-splitting answers is: What is waterboarding? Even after all of the debate that this practice has generated in the news, in government and among political and social organizations from one end of the spectrum to the other, I am almost willing to bet that there would have been any number of answers involving aquatic sports: You know, like, snow-skiing/snowboarding, water-skiing/waterboarding…

Actually, it would have come as no surprise to me at all if no one in an on-the-street survey were to have described it as a form of torture. After all, President Bush doesn't. And neither do certain high-profile apologists for some of Mr. Bush’s more questionable policies, like top conservative news show host Bill O'Reilly at Fox News. In fact, when once backed into a corner by Carol Bogart of the NGO, Human Rights Watch, over his support of waterboarding as an alternative interrogation technique to save American lives, Mr. O’Reilly blithely described waterboarding as having a little water poured over your face. Mr. O’Reilly has repeatedly brought up waterboarding on his prime time show, The O’Reilly Factor, always in a positive light and always minimizing its pernicious effects – both on the victim and, more importantly, on rule of law.

This is not an attitude that is worthy of Mr. O’Reilly’s intelligence, experience, learning or background. Waterboarding is torture, pure and simple, and his reiterated defense of it – like the President’s – is simply unconscionable and wrong. He might as well say right out what he is thinking, that it’s okay as long as it is being done to what he considers “bad guys” and not to him or anyone he knows – you know, good guys. It doesn’t seem to matter to him, or to the President that torture precludes due process of law and that it is precisely through due process that we find out who the bad guys really are, instead of torturing anyone he or President Bush would like to torture in order to find out if they are – or so as to get them to confess that they are, whether they are or not.

Mr. O’Reilly holds degrees in history, journalism and public administration and, as such, should surely be aware of the threat that such “flexibility” with other people’s rights signifies for society as a whole. Especially since he covered Argentina during the Malvinas (Falklands) War, at the end of the authoritarian regime that I myself had been covering for most of a decade when he arrived, and if he didn’t learn anything else from that experience or from his coverage of the civil war carnage in El Salvador, which he also covered, he should have at least learned what happens when authoritarians are permitted to suspend individual rights “in the name of national security”. If, despite his vast education and experience, he can continue to promote the “limited use” of waterboarding at the discretion of the Executive Branch, then, as he himself might say, he needs to “wise up”.

What is Waterboarding?

Waterboarding is a form of torture - I repeat, a form of torture – that dates back, at least, to the Spanish Inquisition. Back then, the Inquisitors would stuff a cloth into the victim’s mouth and pour pitchers of water over it so that all of the water was forced into the prisoner’s gullet, causing him/her to choke and strangle and experience drowning, but permitting the torturer to control how fast the drowning process occurred and, thus, prolong the symptoms – and the suffering – until the victim cracked and confessed to whatever “demonic ritual” he or she was accused of.

Water torture of this and other kinds has been applied by just about every authoritarian regime before and since the Inquisition and has played a role in some of the darkest chapters of America’s own human rights abuse history from the Salem witch trials – in which women accused of witchcraft were strapped to a seat on a long lever and dunked in a river or pond repeatedly until they “confessed” to being witches – to the modern-day waterboarding of post-911 terror suspects held by the government without trial or due process.

In the modern version of waterboarding, victims are immobilized by being strapped to a board on their backs with their heads inclined downward. Water is then poured from a hose, tap, bucket or pitcher onto the face, running into and filling up victims’ breathing passages and causing them to feel that they are drowning. The difference between waterboarding and more common water torture techniques – like dunking the victim or holding the victim’s head under water until asphyxia is imminent, is that waterboarding has the added element of activating the gag reflex. Victims cannot fight waterboarding by holding their breath because the water is poured directly into the breathing passages through the mouth and nose, immediately causing severe gagging and choking. This is said by experts to cause the victim’s resistance to break down in record time – usually less than half a minute. For tough to break prisoners (one of the recent victims of U.S. government torture is reported to have held out for more than 20 minutes of water torture before finally breaking down) there are varying degrees of waterboarding, with one of the advanced stages including tightly wrapping the victim's entire face, including the nose, in clear plastic cling-type wrap, then opening a hole for the mouth and repeatedly pouring water in through the opening. This is a variation on the long-used technique applied by the ruthless mass murders of the Khmer Rouge in torturing prisoners at Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after the United States pulled out of Indo-China at the end of the Vietnam War. Testimonies by prison survivors tell how the Khmer Rouge interrogators would strap prisoners down with an absorbent cloth over their entire face and then gradually pour on water with a sprinkling can or bucket until the fabric was so saturated that the victim had no choice but to breathe in the water that ran from it. One such survivor was Vann Nath, who painted an illustration of the technique, which now hangs on the wall of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The added advantage for those applying this torture is that, unlike techniques that make use of instruments of torture (electric cattle prods; blow torches; beatings with rubber truncheons; flogging; pliers, clamps or vices applied to nails, appendages, genitalia or other body parts, etc.) waterboarding leaves no obvious physical marks. What this means is that it is hard for the victim to prove he or she was ever tortured if they later wish to claim that their confession was obtained under duress.

Bad Company

Water tortures including waterboarding have been used by the very regimes that, over the course of modern history, the United States has denounced as inhuman and as being violators of international law and treaties (the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture, among others): Both Hitler’s Gestapo and the Imperial Japanese forces made use of variations on waterboarding alone or in combination with other tortures during World War II, with some of their number being sentenced to long years in prison for war crimes as a result of their interrogation techniques in Allied war crime trials that followed the war – trials of which Washington was a major proponent.

One compelling testimony of such cruelty to prisoners came from a US airman called Chase Nielsen who was captured in a retaliatory raid on the Japanese following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Providing a chilling and concise account of the waterboarding process, Nielsen said that he was “put on my back on the floor with my arms and legs stretched out, one guard holding each limb. The towel was wrapped around my face and put across my face and water poured on. They poured water on this towel until I was almost unconscious from strangulation, then they would let up until I’d get my breath, then they’d start over again... I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.” What the former airman describes is a perfect definition of the waterboarding technique that Mr. Bush’s administration would have the world believe is a legitimate, alternative, interrogation method.

The elite French paratroopers used the method in Algeria against suspected rebels during French colonial occupation of that country. French law eventually placed an official ban on waterboarding, but not before numerous captives died from induced drowning and a campaign against these methods was organized by renowned French intellectuals including Sartre.

In President Bush’s own state of Texas, in 1983, a county sheriff and three of his deputies were convicted of “conspiring to force confessions” for using waterboarding on prisoners. They ended up being sentenced for the crime – the sheriff to ten years in prison and his deputies to four – described in court as “a suffocating water torture ordeal” and which was detailed as very much the same method that President Bush and his apologists have repeatedly condoned.

Many experts including not only human rights activists but also former law enforcement, military and CIA officers point out that the procedure is not only illegal and morally objectionable, but also unreliable. As with any torture, when the level of suffering reaches a certain phase, at which the prisoner either fears imminent death or wishes for it, he or she will “confess” to almost anything merely in order to make the torment stop. And as Arthur Miller so masterfully points out in his classic “The Crucible”, we’ve been aware of that fact since the Salem witch trials, where innocent women were tortured until they could bear it no more and confessed to witchcraft, only to be summarily executed (murdered) afterwards, with the blessing of the local authorities.

Just as the Puritan authorities of those times filled the people with such fear that they saw witchcraft at every turn, so too the Bush Administration has managed in eight years to generate such a high level of paranoia among large sectors of the US population that many Americans also see a terrorist behind every tree and so have been willing to give the President any latitude he wants in order to exterminate this perceived threat. But with the Bush government on its way out of office, the question Americans should be asking themselves is, at what cost to democracy and civil and human rights has this license been granted?

If it Walks Like a Duck…

Even if we throw the international rule book out the window because “they did it to us and now it’s payback time”, or simply because Washington suddenly feels itself completely above international law and above long-standing treaties that it not only signed but once championed, torture is still prohibited under the US War Crimes Act. So is there a technical question here for defending the indefensible? I mean, is waterboarding torture, or isn’t it?

There are plenty of military men, forensic medical examiners, jurists, intelligence experts, lawmakers and other interested parties, including victims, that would agree that it is. But the best way to tell is to look at the evidence and if it looks like a duck, talks like a duck and walks like a duck, know the rest. And every description or testimony that you hear about it makes it clear that waterboarding is, indeed, torture – that is, unless you believe, like Mr. O’Reilly pretends to, that “they just pour a little water on your face”.

In its advanced stages, waterboarding cannot even be considered mild torture, much less “a valid, professional interrogation technique”, as those advocating it have suggested: Human rights researchers say that while waterboarding, if very moderately applied, doesn't always cause lasting physical damage to the victim, in its most extreme stages, it poses the risks of severe pain, brain damage, pulmonary damage, indirectly related injuries like joint dislocations and fractures (from the victim's desperate struggle against restraints and impending death), heart failure and, not infrequently, death by asphyxiation. Furthermore, the psychological effects on the survivors of waterboarding can be long-lasting, even permanent.

The bottom line is that if you have to torture someone to find out what he or she knows, there is clearly reasonable doubt about their guilt or innocence, and therefore, doubt too about whether the torture is being applied to someone whose only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time, no matter what their prior criminal or political record may look like.

Good Company

Furthermore, any American who recognizes the inherent wrongness in the authorities' condoning this kind of behavior – indeed, promoting it, as the Bush Administration has – is in excellent company, historically speaking. Some US Armed Forces officers who have, in the past, applied waterboarding to captured enemy elements have been tried and convicted of torture and sentenced to lengthy prison terms since at least as far back as the Spanish-American War (when, for instance, Major Edwin Glenn was handed a ten-year sentence for waterboarding a terror suspect in the Philippines). Perhaps one of the most renowned cases was one involving one of America’s toughest presidents ever, a man whose stunning political career was preceded by a brilliant military history, in which he reached the stature of folk hero, not only among the common people, but also among his military colleagues: namely, Theodore Roosevelt. It was Rough Rider Teddy who, as President, ordered the court martial of a US general for permitting his men to employ waterboarding in interrogating prisoners on the island of Samar. The subsequent court of the officer’s peers evidently wanted to send a message to President Roosevelt – like the one so often sent to the American people by Mr. Bush and Mr. O’Reilly – to the effect that extraordinary circumstances sometimes called for extraordinary measures, so they only concluded that the general had been overzealous in his duties. But as commander-in-chief, President Roosevelt cast aside the court martial’s verdict and drummed the general out of the Army.

A Little Bit Pregnant?

There are issues in the life of a nation that permit no shades of grey, and when it comes to rule of law and civil and human rights, there is simply no such thing as “sort of”. Exceptions of convenience with regard to individual rights are tantamount to being “a little bit pregnant”. When it comes to upholding the law and the Bill of Rights, you do it or you don't. There's no in-between. Permitting a country's political leaders to take on powers that belong to Justice, especially in as far as they affect the rights of every individual to due process of law, is an invitation to tyranny.

“Bending” the tenets of due process and rule of law to suit whatever historical stage a country may be going through – as the Bush Administration has done in Guantanamo and elsewhere – is a dangerous precedent, one that we who have long researched and reported on authoritarian regimes know all too well. Far too many dictators elsewhere in the world have awarded themselves sweeping power “to protect democracy against external and internal attack.” And although Americans tend to think that a dictatorship would be impossible in the United States, the Bush Administration has given us a glimpse of just how far authoritarianism can advance just by permitting the Executive Branch to take a bit more “latitude” all the time.

Whoever ends up in the White House next year would do well to focus on getting the country back on the straight and narrow with regard to truly defending democracy and human rights, instead of giving lip service to both while clearly violating them in the name of executive power.