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Last week the Attorney General nominee Judge Michael Mukasey refused to define waterboarding terror suspects as torture. On the same day MSNBC television pundit and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough quickly spoke out in its favor. On his morning television broadcast, he asserted, without any basis in fact, that the efficacy of the waterboard a viable tool to be used on Al Qaeda suspects.
Scarborough said, "For those who don't know, waterboarding is what we did to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is the Al Qaeda number two guy that planned 9/11. And he talked …" He then speculated that “If you ask Americans whether they think it's okay for us to waterboard in a controlled environment … 90% of Americans will say 'yes.'” Sensing that what he was saying sounded extreme, he then claimed he did not support torture but that waterboarding was debatable as a technique: "You know, that's the debate. Is waterboarding torture? … I don't want the United States to engage in the type of torture that [Senator] John McCain had to endure."
In fact, waterboarding is just the type of torture then Lt. Commander John McCain had to endure at the hands of the North Vietnamese. As a former Master Instructor and Chief of Training at the US Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego, California I know the waterboard personally and intimately. SERE staff were required undergo the waterboard at its fullest. I was no exception. I have personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people. It has been reported that both the Army and Navy SERE school’s interrogation manuals were used to form the interrogation techniques used by the US army and the CIA for its terror suspects. What was not mentioned in most articles was that SERE was designed to show how an evil totalitarian, enemy would use torture at the slightest whim. If this is the case, then waterboarding is unquestionably being used as torture technique.
The carnival-like he-said, she-said of the legality of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques has become a form of doublespeak worthy of Catch-22. Having been subjected to them all, I know these techniques, if in fact they are actually being used, are not dangerous when applied in training for short periods. However, when performed with even moderate intensity over an extended time on an unsuspecting prisoner – it is torture, without doubt. Couple that with waterboarding and the entire medley not only “shock the conscience” as the statute forbids -it would terrify you. Most people can not stand to watch a high intensity kinetic interrogation. One has to overcome basic human decency to endure watching or causing the effects. The brutality would force you into a personal moral dilemma between humanity and hatred. It would leave you to question the meaning of what it is to be an American.
We live at a time where Americans, completely uninformed by an incurious media and enthralled by vengeance-based fantasy television shows like “24”, are actually cheering and encouraging such torture as justifiable revenge for the September 11 attacks. Having been a rescuer in one of those incidents and personally affected by both attacks, I am bewildered at how casually we have thrown off the mantle of world-leader in justice and honor. Who we have become? Because at this juncture, after Abu Ghraieb and other undignified exposed incidents of murder and torture, we appear to have become no better than our opponents.
With regards to the waterboard, I want to set the record straight so the apologists can finally embrace the fact that they condone and encourage torture.
History’s Lessons Ignored
Before arriving for my assignment at SERE, I traveled to Cambodia to visit the torture camps of the Khmer Rouge. The country had just opened for tourism and the effect of the genocide was still heavy in the air. I wanted to know how real torturers and terror camp guards would behave and learn how to resist them from survivors of such horrors. I had previously visited the Nazi death camps Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I had met and interviewed survivors of Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Magdeburg when I visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. However, it was in the S-21 death camp known as Tuol Sleng, in downtown Phnom Penh, where I found a perfectly intact inclined waterboard. Next to it was the painting on how it was used. It was cruder than ours mainly because they used metal shackles to strap the victim down, and a tin flower pot sprinkler to regulate the water flow rate, but it was the same device I would be subjected to a few weeks later.
On a Mekong River trip, I met a 60-year-old man, happy to be alive and a cheerful travel companion, who survived the genocide and torture … he spoke openly about it and gave me a valuable lesson: “If you want to survive, you must learn that ‘walking through a low door means you have to be able to bow.’” He told his interrogators everything they wanted to know including the truth. They rarely stopped. In torture, he confessed to being a hermaphrodite, a CIA spy, a Buddhist Monk, a Catholic Bishop and the son of the king of Cambodia. He was actually just a school teacher whose crime was that he once spoke French. He remembered “the Barrel” version of waterboarding quite well. Head first until the water filled the lungs, then you talk.
Once at SERE and tasked to rewrite the Navy SERE program for the first time since the Vietnam War, we incorporated interrogation and torture techniques from the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia into the curriculum. In the process, I studied hundreds of classified written reports, dozens of personal memoirs of American captives from the French-Indian Wars and the American Revolution to the Argentinean ‘Dirty War’ and Bosnia. There were endless hours of videotaped debriefings from World War Two, Korea, Vietnam and Gulf War POWs and interrogators. I devoured the hundreds of pages of debriefs and video reports including those of then Commander John McCain, Colonel Nick Rowe, Lt. Dieter Dengler and Admiral James Stockdale, the former Senior Ranking Officer of the Hanoi Hilton. All of them had been tortured by the Vietnamese, Pathet Lao or Cambodians. The minutiae of North Vietnamese torture techniques was discussed with our staff advisor and former Hanoi Hilton POW Doug Hegdahl as well as discussions with Admiral Stockdale himself. The waterboard was clearly one of the tools dictators and totalitarian regimes preferred.
There is No Debate Except for Torture Apologists
1. Waterboarding is a torture technique. Period. There is no way to gloss over it or sugarcoat it. It has no justification outside of its limited role as a training demonstrator. Our service members have to learn that the will to survive requires them accept and understand that they may be subjected to torture, but that America is better than its enemies and it is one’s duty to trust in your nation and God, endure the hardships and return home with honor.
2. Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.
Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.
Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.
Torture in captivity simulation training reveals there are ways an enemy can inflict punishment which will render the subject wholly helpless and which will generally overcome his willpower. The torturer will trigger within the subject a survival instinct, in this case the ability to breathe, which makes the victim instantly pliable and ready to comply. It is purely and simply a tool by which to deprive a human being of his ability to resist through physical humiliation. The very concept of an American Torturer is an anathema to our values.
That last paragraph reminds me of something...