The waterboard, which inflicts no pain.

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

The new news is that there is a mounting body of evidence that Dick Cheney ordered waterboarding to produce the connections necessary to wage a war on Saddam Hussein. (See diaries by dday for a primer, and buhdydharma for a link to Rachel Maddow.) Our knowledge of Dick Cheney’s penchant for torture now grows and convolves with the dubious War on Iraq. While the Bush team is morally reprehensible for creating evidence to strike, it is not clear that lying to wage a war is actually illegal in the United States. We do know that torture is illegal — we signed the Geneva Convention. The Bush team must be breaking the law by ordering prisoners to the waterboard…

…except there is a contemporary controversey in the United States about whether or not waterboarding qualifies as torture…

What follows is not for polite company — it is a graphic description and analysis of waterboarding.

The 2002 Bybee memo (.pdf) describes the technique beginning at the bottom of page three:

In this procedure, the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual’s feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. As this is done, the cloth is lowered until it covers both the nose and mouth. Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers the mouth and nose, air flow is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds due to the presence of the cloth…

…During those 20 to 40 seconds, water is continuously applied from a height of twelve to twenty-four inches. After this period, the cloth is lifted, and the individual is allowed to breathe unimpeded for three or four full breaths… The procedure may then be repeated. The water is usually applied from a canteen cup or small watering can with a spout… You have… informed us that it is likely that this procedure would not last more than twenty minutes in any one application…

A person is bound to a tilted bench, with his head at the low end. His nose and mouth are covered by a towel, and they pour water on the towel for twenty to forty seconds. They then remove the towel for an arbitrarily short time and repeat.

We have data about how students respond to waterboarding in the military Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape [SERE] school. These are academic exercises, so the level of trauma at SERE is profoundly much less than that for a prisoner, but these students do suffer significantly — enough that the results from this training provide a lower bound for understanding the trauma any interrogation technique inflicts. One strongly reproducible result: the waterboard consistently breaks SERE students.

Jeffersonian Democrat, who describes his experience as a SERE student, quotes a Master Chief Petty Officer on waterboarding:

…In fact, what I found from the MCPO, say a lot about the effectiveness of waterboarding.

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.

Keep in mind, the MCPO has waterboarded hundreds of people.  But also keep in mind who he was waterboarding – that’s right, big tough Navy SEALs going through training.  Some of whom, statistically, have already drowned in BUDs.  They nevertheless go into hysterics.

Greg Mitchell posts a letter from a SERE student’s angry mother:

My 19 year old son was water boarded, among other despicable things, and I had encouraged him to succeed at SERE. They did more to him that he has yet to explain to me, one thing that went on long enough for him to start hallucinating and to think he was dying….

One can imagine just holding the breath for twenty or thirty seconds at a time. Those time intervals seem short enough, and the waterboardee gets to take a few breaths in between. What is the big deal?

Below is a video of Christopher Hitchens voluntarily participating in a waterboarding experiment. There is a lot that we can learn about waterboarding by carefully watching that clip and listening to Hitchens describe his experience. The private contractors are also telling when they prepare to waterboard Hitchens: they do not expect him to last on the board for very long.

“I’ll let you know when it’s fifteen.

Fifteen on, fifteen off.

Third time through, if he hasn’t done it, we’ll go fifteen off, thirty on.

Fifteen twice, then thirty.”

Hitchens nearly gets through the first fifteen seconds. Beginning at 4:08 in the clip, he describes what he felt while he was on the board.

“If you hold your breath, it has the effect of tightening the grip of the stuff over your face and mouth and nostrils. It’s a smothering feeling as well as a drowning feeling.”

There are several things that contribute to the feeling that Hitchens describes. In the early stages, before the carbon dioxide level in the blood starts to rise, there is a struggle over whether to hold the breath or not — there is an urge for a slow exhale to loosen the towel’s seal over the face. If the waterboardee does that, eventually, some water gets in through the nose or mouth. Saliva also pools up in the mouth because the normal swallowing is interrupted along with the breathing — and even a tiny amount of liquid is terrifying when the body is slightly inverted this way. Because of the decline, gravity tends to pool that liquid at the back of the throat and maximizes the struggle to avoid aspiration. This stage begins the fight to keep from drowning.

This drowning feeling that Hitchens describes, one of having liquid nearly enter the lungs, is a penetration trauma. It is intense because there is an imminent threat to life, and the invasive nature of the drowning imprints itself on the nervous system much like a gunshot wound, a stabbing, or a rape. This is the level of trauma that takes place on the waterboard after only a short time, and all before the body sees a significant rise in blood carbon dioxide level. Even with the knowledge that it is an academic exercise, Hitchens got a taste of that penetration experience and aborted the experiment.

Hitchens describes having Post Traumatic Stress symptoms after the fact, starting at 5:15 in the video clip. He wakes up in the middle of the night feeling smothered, and sometimes has panic sensations when he becomes winded. And all of this after only fifteen seconds on the board. What happens when waterboarding goes on longer?

From the Bybee memo, top of page 4:

…Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers tbe mouth and nose, air now is slightly restric.ted for 20 to 40 seconds due to the presence ofthe cloth. This causes an increase in carbon dioxide level in the individual’s blood. This increase in the carbon dioxide level stimulates increased effort to breathe. This effort plus the cloth produces the perception of “suffocation and incipient panic,” i.e., the perception of drowning…

As carbon dioxide builds in the blood, there is a strong urge to suck in air. But there is also the effort to avoid inhaling the liquid that is starting to pool at the back of the throat. The whole body becomes wracked with spasms as the two basic reflexes fight one another. This the basis of the torture: it sets two neurologically hardwired and life-preserving complexes against one other, and this leads to an overall breakdown. The body fights a painful struggle that it loses after a short time.

Fifteen seconds aside, the prisoners  are subject to forty second cycles that are repeated for sessions that span twenty minutes or more:

You have also orally informed us that it is likely that this procedure would not last more than 20 minutes in any one application.

That is what it means to be waterboarded once.

A waterboardee does not know when the water will start or stop, or how long each drowning iteration will last. He does not know that he will not aspirate the next time they remove the towel and give him a few seconds to breathe. He is slowly, systematically, suffocating. He does not know that he will live to see the end of the day. He does not even know if he will live to see a next breath.

Waterboarding is brutally painful, and it is unequivocally torture. Bybee knows it. Cheney knows it. It is time that Americans understand, as well. Waterboarding is a misnomer — this is water torture.


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  1. wrenching it can be to write one (I did last year, still one of the low point days of my life).  

  2. Thank you, Honey, for the gut-wrenching description.

    I think one of the worst parts of the OLC memos is that they completely dismiss the long-term psychological effects of the techniques they authorize, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation and human contact deprivation. In my view, it’s very willful. They have set themselves up as psychologists as well as lawyers.


              For Dan,


  3. Your fellow soldiers are not going to let you die. POWs (no matter what nation or group holds them) have no such assurances.

    My old classmate Ali Soufan was pretty much right. We got much better intelligence when we were treating prisoners like human beings. The problem was that Cheney, Rumsfeld and crew wanted the Iraq-9/11 connection (which didn’t exist) and were willing to push the limits of human depravity to establish that link.

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