Further information on viewing conditions, site index and the site Google search facility
Frost's Meditations Logo

There are several different varieties of interrogation techniques referred to as waterboarding.

In the medieval form of waterboarding, a victim was strapped to a board and tipped back or lowered into a body of water until he or she believed that drowning was imminent. The subject was then removed from the water and revived. If necessary the process was repeated. There are other forms, but all of them have in common that the victim almost drowns but is rescued or re-animated just before death occurs. The technique is designed to be both psychological and physical. The psychological effect is that the victim is led to believe that he or she is being executed. This reinforces the interrogator's control and makes the victim experience mortal fear. The physical effects are extreme pain and damage to the lungs, brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation and sometimes broken bones because of the restraints on the struggling victim.

A similar technique was applied to punish scolds and detect supposed witches. In a trial by ordeal called "dunking" or "ducking," supposed witches were immersed into a vat of water or pond, and taken out after some time, when the victim was given the opportunity to confess. If she confessed, she was killed; if she did not confess, she was submerged again. This process was usually repeated until the victim either drowned or submitted herself to execution in another way (hanging or, rarely, burning).


A woiodcut shows the waterbaording techniqueWaterboarding is a form of torture that consists of immobilizing a person on his or her back, with the head inclined downward, and pouring water over the face and into the breathing passages.

Through forced suffocation and inhalation of water, the subject experiences the process of drowning in a controlled environment and is made to believe that death is imminent. In contrast to merely submerging the head face-forward, waterboarding almost immediately elicits the gag reflex.

 Although waterboarding can be performed in ways that leave no lasting physical damage, it carries the risks of extreme pain, damage to the lungs, brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation, injuries (including broken bones) due to struggling against restraints, and even death.

The psychological effects on victims of waterboarding can last for years after the procedure.

Waterboarding has been used in interrogations at least as early as the Spanish Inquisition. It has been used for interrogation purposes, to obtain information, coerce confessions, punish, and intimidate. Today it is considered to be torture by a wide range of authorities, including legal experts, politicians, war veterans, intelligence officials, military judges, and human rights organizations. Waterboarding gained recent attention and notoriety in the United States when the press reported that the CIA had used waterboarding in the interrogation of certain extrajudicial prisoners and that the Justice Department had authorized this procedure. The new controversy surrounded the widely reported use of waterboarding by the United States government on alleged terrorists, and whether the practice was acceptable.

The waterboarding technique was characterized in 2005 by former CIA director Porter J. Goss as a "professional interrogation technique." According to press accounts, a cloth or plastic wrap is placed over or in the person's mouth, and water is poured on to the person's head. As far as the details of this technique, press accounts differ - one article describes "dripping water into a wet cloth over a suspect's face",[17] another states that "cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him." CIA officers who have subjected themselves to the technique have lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.

Two televised segments, one from Fox News and one from Current TV, demonstrate a waterboarding technique that may be the subject of these press descriptions. In the videos, each correspondent is held against a board by the interrogators. In the Current TV segment, a rag is then forced into the correspondent's mouth, and several pitchers of water are poured onto the rag.

The interrogators periodically remove the rag, and the correspondent is seen to gasp for breath. The Fox News segment mentions five "phases" of which the first three are shown. In the first phase, water is simply poured onto the correspondent's face. The second phase is similar to the Current TV episode. In phase three, plastic wrap is placed over the correspondent's face, and a hole is poked into it over his mouth. Water is poured into his mouth through the hole, causing him to gag. He mentions that it really does cause him to gag; that it could lead to asphyxiation; and that he could stand it for only a few seconds.

Dating back to the Spanish Inquisition, the technique has been favored because, unlike most other torture techniques, it produces no marks on the body. As with any method of torture, information retrieved from waterboarding may not be reliable because a person under such duress may admit to anything, as harsh interrogation techniques lead to false confessions. "'The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law,' claims John Sifton of Human Rights Watch."

Mental and physical effects
In an open letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Human Rights Watch claimed that waterboarding can cause the sort of "severe pain" prohibited by 18 USC 2340 (the implementation in the United States of the United Nations Convention Against Torture), that the psychological effects can last long after waterboarding ends (another of the criteria under 18 USC 2340), and that uninterrupted waterboarding can ultimately cause death.

Dr. Allen Keller, the director of the Bellevue/N.Y.U. Program for Survivors of Torture, has treated "a number of people" who had been subjected to forms of near-asphyxiation, including waterboarding. An interview for The New Yorker states, "[He] argued that it was indeed torture, 'Some victims were still traumatized years later', he said. One patient couldn't take showers, and panicked when it rained. 'The fear of being killed is a terrifying experience,' he said." Keller also stated in his testimony before the Senate that "Water-boarding or mock drowning, where a prisoner is bound to an inclined board and water is poured over their face, inducing a terrifying fear of drowning clearly can result in immediate and long-term health consequences. As the prisoner gags and chokes, the terror of imminent death is pervasive, with all of the physiologic and psychological responses expected, including an intense stress response, manifested by tachycardia (rapid heart beat) and gasping for breath. There is a real risk of death from actually drowning or suffering a heart attack or damage to the lungs from inhalation of water. Long term effects include panic attacks, depression and PTSD. I remind you of the patient I described earlier who would panic and gasp for breath whenever it rained even years after his abuse."

Dunking the witch - woodcut of medaeval practice used to define guilt.

Historical uses

Spanish Inquisition
A form of torture similar to waterboarding called toca, along with garrucha (or strappado) and the most frequently used potro (or the rack), was used (though infrequently) during the trial portion of the Spanish Inquisition process. "The toca, also called tortura del agua, consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had the impression of drowning." One source has claimed that the use of water as a form of torture also had profound religious significance to the Inquisitors.

Colonial times
Agents of the Dutch East India Company used a precursor to waterboarding during the Amboyna massacre, which took place on the island of Amboyna in the Molucca Islands in 1623. At that time, it consisted of wrapping cloth around a victim's head, after which the torturers "poured the water softly upon his head until the cloth was full, up to the mouth and nostrils, and somewhat higher, so that he could not draw breath but he must suck in all the water." In one case, the torturer applied water three or four times successively until the victim's "body was swollen twice or thrice as big as before, his cheeks like great bladders, and his eyes staring and strutting out beyond his forehead."

World War II
During World War II, Japanese troops, especially the Kempeitai, as well the Gestapo, the German secret police, used waterboarding as a method of torture. The German technique was called the German equivalent of "u-boat". During the Double Tenth Incident, waterboarding consisted of binding or holding down the victim on his back, placing a cloth over his mouth and nose, and pouring water onto the cloth. In this version, interrogation continued during the torture, with the interrogators beating the victim if he did not reply and the victim swallowing water if he opened his mouth to answer or breathe. When the victim could ingest no more water, the interrogators would beat or jump on his distended stomach.

Algerian War
The technique was also used during the Algerian War (1954-1962). The French journalist Henri Alleg, who was subjected to waterboarding by French paratroopers in Algeria in 1957, is one of only a few people to have described in writing the first-hand experience of being waterboarded. His book The Question, published in 1958 with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre (and subsequently banned in France until the end of the Algerian War in 1962) discusses the experience of being strapped to a plank, having his head wrapped in cloth and positioned beneath a running tap: 'The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breathe in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn't hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save me from suffocation. In spite of myself, the fingers of both my hands shook uncontrollably. "That's it! He's going to talk," said a voice. The water stopped running and they took away the rag. I was able to breathe. In the gloom, I saw the lieutenants and the captain, who, with a cigarette between his lips, was hitting my stomach with his fist to make me throw out the water I had swallowed.'

Alleg has stated that the incidence of "accidental" death of prisoners being subjected to waterboarding in Algeria was "very frequent."

Vietnam War
Waterboarding was designated as illegal by U.S. generals in the Vietnam War. On January 21, 1968, The Washington Post published a controversial photograph of an American soldier supervising the waterboarding of a North Vietnamese POW near Da Nang.photo. The article described the practice as "fairly common." The photograph led to the soldier being court-martialled by a U.S. military court within one month of its publication, and he was thrown out of the army. Another waterboarding photograph of the same scene is also exhibited in the War Remnants Museum at Ho Chi Minh City.

Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, used waterboarding as a method of torture between 1975 and 1979.

Contemporary use and the United States

Many reports say that intelligence officers of the United States used waterboarding to interrogate prisoners captured in its War on Terrorism:

    The June 21, 2004 issue of Newsweek stated that the Bybee memo, a 2002 legal memorandum drafted by former OLC lawyer John Yoo that described what sort of interrogation tactics against suspected terrorists or terrorist affiliates the Bush administration would consider legal, was "prompted by CIA questions about what to do with a top Qaeda captive, Abu Zubaydah, who had turned uncooperative...and was drafted after White House meetings convened by George W. Bush's chief counsel, Alberto Gonzales, along with Defense Department general counsel William Haynes and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's counsel, who discussed specific interrogation techniques, says a source familiar with the discussions." Among the methods they found acceptable was waterboarding.

    In November 2005, ABC News reported that former CIA agents claimed that the CIA engaged in a modern form of waterboarding, along with five other "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques", against suspected members of al Qaeda.

    On July 20, 2007, U.S. President George W. Bush signed an executive order banning torture during interrogation of terror suspects. While the guidelines for interrogation do not specifically ban waterboarding, the executive order refers to torture as defined by 18 USC 2340, which includes "the threat of imminent death," as well as the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Reaction to the order was mixed, with the CIA satisfied that it "clearly defined" the agency's authorities, but Human Rights Watch saying that answers about what specific techniques had been banned lay in the classified companion document and that "the people in charge of interpreting [that] document don't have a particularly good track record of reasonable legal analysis."

    On September 14, 2007, ABC News reported that sometime in 2006 CIA Director Michael Hayden asked for and received permission from the Bush administration to ban the use of waterboarding in CIA interrogations. The source of information is current and former CIA officials. ABC reported that waterboarding had been authorized by a 2002 Presidential finding.[38] On November 5, 2007, The Wall Street Journal reported that its "sources confirm... that the CIA has only used this interrogation method against three terrorist detainees and not since 2003." John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, is the first official within the U.S. government to openly admit to the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique, as of December 10, 2007.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
    Several accounts reported that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded while being interrogated by the CIA. According to the Bush administration, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed divulged information of tremendous value during his detention. He is said to have helped point the way to the capture of Hambali, the Indonesian terrorist responsible for the 2002 bombings of night clubs in Bali. According to the Bush administration, he also provided information on an Al Qaeda leader in England.

    During a radio interview on October 24, 2006, with Scott Hennen of radio station WDAY, Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to agree with the use of waterboarding. The following are the questions and answers at issue, excerpted from the transcript of the interview:

    Hennen: "…And I've had people call and say, please, let the Vice President know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves American lives. Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?"

    Cheney: "I do agree. And I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high value detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that's been a very important tool that we've had to be able to secure the nation. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided us with enormously valuable information about how many there are, about how they plan, what their training processes are and so forth, we've learned a lot. We need to be able to continue that."
    Hennen: "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?"

    Cheney: "Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

    The administration later denied that Cheney had confirmed the use of waterboarding, saying that U.S. officials do not talk publicly about interrogation techniques because they are classified. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said that Cheney was not referring to waterboarding, but only to a "dunk in the water", prompting one reporter to ask, "So dunk in the water means, what, we have a pool now at Guantanamo and they go swimming?" Tony Snow replied, "You doing stand-up?" On September 13, 2007 ABC News reported that a former intelligence officer stated that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded in the presence of a female CIA supervisor.

    Captured along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was a letter from bin Laden which led officials to think that he knew where the Al Qaeda founder was hiding.

    According to sources familiar with a private interview of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he claimed to have been waterboarded five times. "A CIA official told ABC News that he had been water-boarded, and had won the admiration of his interrogators because it took him two to two-and-half minutes to start confessing – well beyond the average of 14 seconds observed in others." This is disputed by two former CIA officers who are reportedly friends with one of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's interrogators. The officers called this 'bravado' and claimed that he was waterboarded only once. According to one of the officers, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed needed only to be shown the drowning equipment again before he "broke." "Waterboarding works," the former officer said. "Drowning is a baseline fear. So is falling. People dream about it. It’s human nature. Suffocation is a very scary thing. When you’re waterboarded, you’re inverted, so it exacerbates the fear. It’s not painful, but it scares the shit out of you." (The former officer was waterboarded himself in a training course.) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he claimed, "didn’t resist. He sang right away. He cracked real quick." He said, "A lot of them want to talk. Their egos are unimaginable. (He) was just a little doughboy. He couldn't stand toe to toe and fight it out." After being subjected to waterboarding, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed claimed involvement in thirty-one terrorist plots.

Abu Zubaida
    There have also been reports that Abu Zubaida was waterboarded while detained by the U.S. government.

    In 2002, U.S. intelligence located Abu Zubayda by tracing his phone calls. He was captured March 28, 2002, in a safehouse located in a two story apartment in Faisalabad, Pakistan. While in U.S. custody, he was waterboarded, and consequently gave a great deal of information about the 9/11 attack plot, although the veracity of some of his statements has been called into question. Such information was used by the Canadian government in seeking to uphold the 'security certificate' of Mohamed Harkat. Participating in his interrogation were two American psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and R. Scott Shumate.

    In December 2007, the Washington Post reported that there were some discrepancies regarding reports about the amount of times Zubaida was waterboarded. According to a previous account by Former CIA officer John Kiriakou, Abu Zubaida broke after just 35 seconds of waterboarding, which involved stretching cellophane over his mouth and nose and pouring water on his face to create the sensation of drowning. From the Washington Post article:

    "But other former and current officials disagreed that Abu Zubaida's cooperation came quickly under harsh interrogation or that it was the result of a single waterboarding session. Instead, these officials said, harsh tactics used on him at a secret detention facility in Thailand went on for weeks or, depending on the account, even months. The videotaping of Abu Zubaida in 2002 went on day and night throughout his interrogation, including waterboarding, and while he was sleeping in his cell, intelligence officials said...The CIA has said it ceased waterboarding in 2003."

Classification as torture
Today, waterboarding is considered to be torture by a wide range of authorities, including legal experts,politicians, war veterans, intelligence officials, military judges, and human rights organizations. However, arguments have been put forward that it is not torture in all cases, or that they are uncertain.The U.S. State Department has recognized that other techniques that involve submersion of the head of the subject during interrogation would qualify as torture.

Controversy in the United States
Whether waterboarding should be classified as a method of torture was not widely in debate in the United States before it was alleged that members of the CIA have used the technique against certain suspected detained terrorists.Since then, some commentators have argued that waterboarding as an interrogation method should not qualify as torture in certain circumstances while other individuals have refused to state whether they would consider waterboarding to be torture without knowing the specific facts of a situation.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a licensed attorney and former U.S. federal prosecutor now serving as director of the Center for Law and Counterterrorism, states in an October 2007 op-ed in National Review that he believes that, when used "some number of instances that were not prolonged or extensive", waterboarding should not qualify as torture under the law. McCarthy continues: "Personally, I don't believe it qualifies. It is not in the nature of the barbarous sadism universally condemned as torture, an ignominy the law, as we've seen, has been patently careful not to trivialize or conflate with lesser evils," though in the same article he admits that "waterboarding is close enough to torture that reasonable minds can differ on whether it is torture".

Some American politicians have unequivocally stated that it is their belief that waterboarding is not torture. In response to the question "Do you believe waterboarding is torture?" on the Glenn Beck show, Representative Ted Poe stated "I don't believe it's torture at all, I certainly don't." Beck agreed with him. The American conservative media commentator Jim Meyers has stated, in a December 2007 Newsmax.com opinion piece, that he does not believe that waterboarding should be classified as a form of torture, because he does not believe it inflicts pain.

In a telephone poll of 1,024 American adults by the CNN/Opinion Research Corp. in early November 2007 about whether they considered waterboarding torture. 69 percent of respondents said that waterboarding was torture while 29 percent of respondants said it was not. In addition, 58 percent of those polled stated that they did not think that the U.S. government should be allowed to use this procedure against suspected terrorists as a method of interrogation.

As a political issue in confirmation hearings
The issue of whether waterboarding is torture became an issue in confirming certain appointments to the Department of Justice. Judge Michael Mukasey was intended to be a consensus candidate to replace Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney General, but his confirmation briefly looked in doubt when he wouldn't state whether waterboarding is torture. Mukasey stated that waterboarding seemed "over the line or, on a personal basis, repugnant to me, and would probably seem the same to many Americans" but that "hypotheticals are different from real life, and in any legal opinion the actual facts and circumstances are critical." As reported by the Washington Post: Mukasey also stated that he was "reluctant to offer opinions on interrogation techniques because he does not want to place U.S. officials 'in personal legal jeopardy' and is concerned that such remarks might 'provide our enemies with a window into the limits or contours of any interrogation program.'"

The issue came up again in the confirmation hearings of Federal District Judge Mark Filip for the position of deputy attorney general. Filip stated that he considered waterboarding to be "repugnant," and stated that with a grandfather in a POW camp in Germany, he considered the issue to be somewhat personal. That being said, he refused to state whether waterboarding was torture and stated instead that "the attorney general of the United States is presently reviewing that legal question" and that "I don't think I can or anyone who could be potentially considered for his deputy could get out in front of him on that question while it's under review."

As a political issue in 2008 presidential election
The issue of whether waterboarding should be classified as torture also became a political issue for candidates running for president in the 2008 election, which candidates being asked whether they would consider waterboarding to be a form of torture. Several political candidates (e.g., John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Joseph Biden, Chris Dodd, Barack Obama have stated unequivocally that waterboarding is torture, while others have refused to state this position or have stated that they do not believe waterboarding is torture.

For example, in response to a direct question of whether he considered waterboarding to be torture, Rudolph Giuliani stated "I’m not sure [waterboarding] is [torture]. It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it. I think the way it’s been defined in the media, it shouldn’t be done. The way in which they have described it, particularly in the liberal media. So I would say, if that’s the description of it, then I can agree, that it shouldn’t be done. But I have to see what the real description of it is. Because I’ve learned something being in public life as long as I have. And I hate to shock anybody with this, but the newspapers don’t always describe it accurately."

Additionally, Tom Tancredo stated in a Republican debate the following: "[T]he question that I was originally asked that elicited the response that you’ve mentioned was, what do we do in the -- in the response to a nuclear -- or the fact that a nuclear device or some bombs have gone off in the United States; we know that there are -- we have captured people who have information that could lead us to the next one that’s going to go off; and it’s the big one? That was the question that I responded to. And I told you yes, I would do -- certainly waterboard -- I don’t believe that that is, quote, "torture." I would do what is necessary to protect this country. That is the ultimate responsibility of the president of the United States."

In the Republican YouTube debates, Andrew Jones, a college student from Seattle submitted the question: "Recently, Senator McCain has come out strongly against using waterboarding as an instrument of interrogation. My question for the rest of you is, considering that Mr. McCain is the only one with any firsthand knowledge on the subject, how can those of you sharing the stage with him disagree with his position?" In response to this question Mitt Romney stated "I oppose torture. I would not be in favor of torture in any way, shape or form." Prompted by the moderator as to whether waterboarding was torture, Romney said "as a presidential candidate, I don't think it's wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use" which prompted the following exchange between McCain and Romney: McCain: "Well, governor, I'm astonished that you haven't found out what waterboarding is." Romney: "I know what waterboarding is, Senator." McCain: "Then I am astonished that you would think such a – such a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our — who we are held captive and anyone could believe that that's not torture. It's in violation of the Geneva Convention."

All nations that are signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture have agreed they are subject to the explicit prohibition on torture under any condition, and as such there exists no legal exception under this treaty. (The treaty states "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.") Additionally, signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are bound to Article 5, which states, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

United States
The United States has a historical record of regarding waterboarding as a crime, and has prosecuted individuals for the use of the practice in the past. In 1947, the United States prosecuted a Japanese military officer, Yukio Asano, for carrying out a form of waterboarding on a U.S. civilian during World War II. Yukio Asano received a sentence of 15 years of hard labor. The charges of Violation of the Laws and Customs of War against Asano also included "beating using hands, fists, club; kicking; burning using cigarettes; strapping on a stretcher head downward."

In its 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. Department of State formally recognized "submersion of the head in water" as torture in its examination of Tunisia's poor human rights record, and critics of waterboarding draw parallels between the two techniques, citing the similar usage of water on the subject. On September 6, 2006, the U.S. Department of Defense released a revised Army Field Manual entitled Human Intelligence Collector Operations that prohibits the use of waterboarding by U.S. military personnel. The department adopted the manual amid widespread criticism of U.S. handling of prisoners in the War on Terrorism, and prohibits other practices in addition to waterboarding. The revised manual applies only to U.S. military personnel, and as such does not apply to the practices of the CIA. However, under international law, violators of the laws of war are criminally liable under the command responsibility, and could still be prosecuted for war crimes.

See also:
Rendition - facilitating torture?
The Line Between Torture and Cruelty
Waterboarding USA

Readers please email comments to: editorial AT martinfrost.ws including full name

Note: martinfrost.ws contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available to our readers under the provisions of "fair use" in an effort to advance a better understanding of political, economic and social issues. The material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving it for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material for purposes other than "fair use" you must request permission from the copyright owner.