Small Wars Journal

Waterboarding: A Tool of Political Gotcha

In his op-ed, Mr. Nance on waterboarding successfully squared the circle when he wrote: "I have personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people. Waterboarding should never be used as an interrogation tool. It is beneath our values. Is there a place for the waterboard? Yes. It must go back to the realm of training our operatives, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines."

This professional website is not the place to untangle Mr. Nance's eschatology. Waterboarding has become a tool of political gotcha that demeans serious discussion of the changing values underlying our operational approach to national security. It is politics, not morality, when senators vote their conscience along overwhelmingly party lines.

The repetition of the word waterboard is a means of embarrassing the current administration at the risk of narrowing the interrogation options that a president, current or future, may choose. That is why Senator Clinton has been circumspect in her comments. Both Mr. Tenet and Gen. Hayden have been firm in arguing that there is solid evidence that American lives have been saved by harsh interrogation. Picking on one technique is a political maneuver.

It does illustrate, though, how the values and standards of our society change over time. When I went through a Marine "POW camp" 45 years ago, I was tied up and walloped. That, as Mr. Nance points out, was part of the training. In my book, The Village, I described how in 1966 the police chief Thanh of Binh Nghia village used what is now called waterboarding, rubbing lye soap into a wet cloth and placing it across the face of the prisoner. (p. 67). I never saw a prisoner die or not be able to walk out of that room. But they talked. I reported it and our orders were to keep the Marines in our Combined Action Platoon out of that room. The PFs were under our command, but not the National Police.

Today, 40 years later, the order would be for the American adviser to physically stop Thanh and to bring him up on charges. We all know this is tough stuff. Iraqis, like the Vietnamese and the South Koreans who operated in Vietnam, sometimes thump prisoners and their own jundis. Advisers are expected to advise on operational matters, but on matters of physical abuse they are expected to impose - not advise about - American standards.

Our advisers are held to a very high moral code. Neither our advisers nor our military units are involved in waterboarding or other such techniques, be they labeled "torture", or "harsh interrogation" or whatever the vernacular.

Mr. Nance writes that he personally supervised the waterboarding of "hundreds of people". Nothing like that is going on. Nothing. The CIA has said the number of harsh interrogations is very low, implying a figure of perhaps ten to twenty in five years. The senators on the oversight committees have been briefed for years on the specifics. The Senate chose twice not to pass legislation banning waterboarding. Now they have stirred up a ruckus that forces them to take another vote in order to avoid being called hypocrites.

This subject has been exaggerated for political gain.

-----

Waterboarding, Elsewhere - Max Boot

Comments

arf (not verified)

Mon, 11/05/2007 - 5:05pm

For all who question whether waterboarding is torture I suggest you read the article that was mentioned in Red_Leo's post of November 3, 2007. The article "Waterboarding used to be a Crime" by Evan Wallach was published in the November 4, 2007 Washington Post. I had trouble using the URL provided by Red_Leo, but I found a secondary URL that points to the article. Evidently others also see its value.
http://del.icio.us/url/a84c6298c6ac670189c2260556c77e05
The article makes it clear that the technique has been used in the past and has resulted in convictions when it was prosecuted. It is a crime. It is torture. It is used for punishment or to produce confessions. Confessions are not necessarily truth. They are whatever the "operator" wants to hear. They are useless in gathering intelligence.

Ken White

Mon, 11/05/2007 - 4:06pm

Peiter:

In the US, voluntarily only in the sense that they joined the Armed Forces on their own initiative. After that, selection for and attendance at a SERE course is not voluntary.

One can of course, determine to not attend but the most likely result of that would be that one no longer served.

Peiter (not verified)

Mon, 11/05/2007 - 3:05pm

@Redleg6:
One should think that the crucial difference is that the servicemembers undergo this training voluntarily.

Redleg6 (not verified)

Mon, 11/05/2007 - 2:02pm

Forgive the question of a self-proclaimed simpleton:

If Mr. Nance admits to having..."personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people." And, international law and most of the posters have stated, waterboarding is torture and, therefore, unlawful.

Has Mr. Nance violated the law by waterboarding American servicemembers? If not, why?

I don't see the argument of law enforcement tasing and hosing down officers with OC during training as a good example, as they are both levels of force, and not torture.

Abu Suleyman

Mon, 11/05/2007 - 11:12am

Indisputably, waterboarding has turned into a political tool. Nevertheless, its nature as a political tool is not mutually exclusive to tool of interrogation or torture. I will defer final judgment on whether or not it is torture to others more qualified than I am. Frankly, I am not so concerned about the well being of terrorists as I am of the innocent that we may capture (however improbable that is) and the well being of the Americans asked to conduct the interrogations.

My question is, what happens to the interrogator after water boarding? Does it change them? The comparison to the South Vietnamese or South Koreans is apt. Do we wish to become like that? Is it necessary to abdicate a degree of out humaneness to maintain our security, and how much?

These are all questions that have answers, but until we can discuss them in a less histrionic manner, we are not likely to find an answer.

ChezDaveed (not verified)

Sun, 11/04/2007 - 11:34pm

Walrus,

You asked the question:

". . . whats the difference between the bad guys who do as you say, and the "good" guys who do exactly the same with with a 2000lb. bomb?"

What does a 2000 pound bomb have to do with this discussion? Are you using a moral equivalence argument? Shouldn't you have asked me to state the difference between "us" waterboarding, and "them" severing limbs and murdering children? I'm sorry but I don't understand what you are getting at. You could also have asked me to state the difference between us using waterboarding vs them waterboarding, but I didn't hear that either.

I'll try to answer the question I think you meant to ask. The difference is it's us, and they are them. As far as I'm concerned, our purposes are rooted in our survival, theirs are rooted in our destruction, and that does justify our means. Not any means mind you, but the one we are talking about in this discussion. Scaring someone is a far cry from the things "our" enemies do.

I take exception to your characterization that my "argument" as you called it was "warmly approving of something as shocking as torture."
I haven't warmly approved of any such thing. I suppose you could call waterboarding torture, but I don't see this as the black & white issue that you do. When you force this issue into the dichotomy that it is torture or it is not, you are trying to limit my response to a ethical question of your design, not mine, and we shouldn't bully others in such a manner, at least not here.

I know what waterboarding is, and thanks to Mr. Nance's dissertation, so do you. I'd know they 'probably' weren't going to drown me, but wanted me to talk. I'd talk, try to remain consistent in my confessions, and be thankful they weren't cutting me up with knives or chainsaws. Our enemies on the other hand, don't make those assumptions, because they judge us by their standards, and that's what makes these methods effective in some circumstances.

More importantly, by reversing our legal position on this we'd be opening the door of liability and prosecution of people who were previously working under policy guidlelines that they believed made the practice legal. It would also open a real can of worms overseas, where certain "people" would claim that by our own definition, our operatives had committed war crimes, and they'd make all sorts of demands --turning the issue into a "hate america" circus.

Mr. Nance may think that sort of thing is just something we have to weather on the road to our idyllic future. I don't know because he didn't really go that far in his article. I however, do not. I appreciate his and everyone else's perspectives.

Pauly (not verified)

Sun, 11/04/2007 - 11:33pm

Schmedlap,

My apologies, I read your post as you agreeing with/forwarding the argument.
Please treat the sentence highlighted as referring to the "the argument" not "your argument".

As I see it if the administration needs to be convinced about why torture should not be used my arguments would be:
1) It costs us a lot to employ the techniques, whatever it is called. The cost is generally in "soft" areas such as public and international support but the cost is real.
2) Historically torture has proven to be unreliable, take your pick of examples from the Salem Witch trials, Stalin's show trials, the Spanish Iquisition ad infinitum.
3) There is no scientific evidence to say that the use of torture will achieve a better intelligence outcome than any other methods.
4) In WWII the allies achieved better intelligence outcomes without resorting to torture than the Gestapo or Kempetai who routinely used torture.

DDilegge

Sun, 11/04/2007 - 10:20pm

General comment: Please, just stay on topic with civil replies without the editorial remarks about the 'worthiness' of another poster's comment - thank you.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Sun, 11/04/2007 - 10:07pm

Walrus wrote:
<I>"Schmedlap, your argument here is too fantastic for serious comment."</I>
<B>What argument did I make?</B>

I presented a hypothetical question that assumed the facts as presented by the torture opponents and a cirumstance that has been presented by the President. I even followed it up by pointing out that it was NOT a rhetorical question.

Pauly wrote:
<I>"Your argument that torture is warranted in a "ticking bomb" scenario is predicated on the assumptions that..."</I>
<B>Again, what argument?</B>

The President seems to be operating from the assumption that, in certain cases, torture works. Whether or not that is correct, it is an assumption that must be addressed either by convincing him that he is wrong, preventing the government from torturing, or acting within the current framework. I asked the question because the latter seems the most likely situation for the foreseeable future.

Chez, you make the point:

"Our enemies were skinning people alive, cutting off their hands and feet, and disemboweling children in front of their parents long before our use of waterboarding became public, and they will continue to do so long after this issue fades into history."

Since we are talking morality here, whats the difference between the bad guys who do as you say, and the "good" guys who do exactly the same with with a 2000lb. bomb?

To my way of thinking one is just as dead.

But in any case your argument is malarkey because you tell us we should be shocked at the behaviour of the bad guys, but instead warmly approving of something as shocking as torture.

Pauly (not verified)

Sun, 11/04/2007 - 9:46pm

Schmedlap.

Your argument that torture is warranted in a "ticking bomb" scenario is predicated on the assumptions that:
a) We know that the suspect has the information;
b) He will talk under torture despite resisting other interogation techniques; and
c) Torture is a reliable method of obtaining information

The use of torture costs us a lot in terms of prestige, convincing undetermined people as to the validity of our cause, and is a powerful propaganda tool for recruitment by our enemies.

Are you willing to pay that cost simply because we MAY have someone in custody who MAY know something who MAY talk under torture and MAY give us good information that MAY not have been able to be extracted in a timely manny by another method? To my mind there are just too many MAYs in that statement.

If you look at the historical record every Western power allowed torture voluntarily gave up the use of torture over a span of approximately two hundred years from 1650 to 1850. The governments of the day didn't give up the use of torture purely from a moral standpoint, they gave it up mainly because it did not deliver reliable results which meant that the cost of the moral opprobrium of maintaining torture as an interrogation technique outweighed the practical gains that torture delivered.

I just don't know where this current administration gets the idea that their torturers are more skilled than their forebears of 300 years ago were.

Schmedlap, your argument here is too fantastic for serious comment.

It requires detailed prior knowledge and the certainty that only exists in film scripts, finally, you assume that torture is more effective than other interrogation techniques.

Then there is the argument of simple technical utility. Given that Al Qaeeda is aware of our propensity to torture, there are very simple, proven and well known techniques from the espionage world that nullify any advantage obtained through forcible interrogation, the simplest of these my dear Schemdlap, is to ensure that no single person is in possession of enough information to thwart one's plans, and to ensure, through communications (or lack of them) that one knows if someone has been caught.

Torture is not an "interrogation option" it is a failed technique that is more usually employed to punish or to manufacture evidence.

Furthermore, the apologists for it merely drag America's reputation more deeply into the mud. You have traded America's honor for nothing.

ChezDaveed (not verified)

Sun, 11/04/2007 - 9:29pm

Mr. Nance made a substantial albeit long winded argument against waterboarding, but I'm not convinced. I too underwent SERE training, and I'm still alive and well. I wasn't impressed with with the 'slippery slope' argument, or the references to Nazi's and the Khmer Rouge. By his definition, even cocking an empty gun and pointing it at a detainee's head would be torture also. Furthermore, just because you don't agree with Mr. Nuzzillo, doesn't mean that Mr. Nance is correct.

We live in a dangerous world, and I'm glad idealism is alive and well, even here at SWJ. I do believe that you can make someone tell you anything true or not, but that isn't what's going on. Apparently, some of the cadre at a SEAL SERE school isn't as tied in or "in the know" as they believed (or want others to believe.) You can play with the meaning of the word "torture" all you want, but adding to the hysteria of the issue does more to put american lives at risk than waterboarding, or other "advanced interrogation techniques."

Our enemies were skinning people alive, cutting off their hands and feet, and disemboweling children in front of their parents long before our use of waterboarding became public, and they will continue to do so long after this issue fades into history.

I loved the article though, and Nuzillo's response.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Sun, 11/04/2007 - 8:00pm

Suppose the following are true statements...

Waterboarding is torture
Torture is forbidden under international law
We have agreed to abide by said international law

For the sake of argument, consider the following circumstance...

There is a large terrorist attack planned against American citizens on American soil
All non-tortuous means of obtaining details of this attack from a foreign enemy have yielded insufficient information to thwart the attack
We believe that waterboarding may enable us to obtain the information from the enemy.

Given the statements at the top, are we to conclude that, in the circumstance above, American lives are less valuable than our adherence to the international law in question and we should forego the waterboarding? This is not a rhetorical question.

Red_Leo (not verified)

Sat, 11/03/2007 - 11:02pm

As Lookingpast correctly pointed out it is true that waterboarding has become a political issue, even if the fundamental question is that waterboarding is torture and torture is unlawful, independently from which political party may be governing the country. The fact that the current administration authorized the use of waterboarding is as Lookingpast explained.
" Therefore, because waterboarding is torture, our President has authorized the use of torture. This is the point, not how often it has been done and by whom, but that the use of torture is now official U.S. policy.
I am appalled and ashamed. This is, in total agreement with Mr. Nance, dishonorable. If we allow it to stand, we, the citizens of the United States, share in that dishonor. "
Mr. West argues that:
"The repetition of the word waterboard is a means of embarrassing the current administration at the risk of narrowing the interrogation options that a president, current or future, may choose. That is why Senator Clinton has been circumspect in her comments. Both Mr. Tenet and Gen. Hayden have been firm in arguing that there is solid evidence that American lives have been saved by harsh interrogation. Picking on one technique is a political maneuver. "
The choice of interrogation techniques must remain within the limits imposed by law, as any other activity, in time of peace and also of war. The fact that the administration is so reluctant to inform about torture and if or how it respects the law and the Constitution and also the Geneva Convention leads to so many discussions and debates at all levels. Secrecy does not make those decisions and authorizations lawful. If the administration is embarrassed it only may thank itself for acting as it is doing.
I suggest the reading of the interesting analysis Dean Velvel of the Harvard Law School made about this matter while commenting Jack Goldsmiths new book, The Terror Presidency ("TP"). He gave a contribution to the discussion on Nances post by adding this analysis in the comments. (http://velvelonnationalaffairs.blogspot.com/2007/10/october-12-2007-re-…) He argues that:
" The CIAs lawyers wanted from OLC (Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice) , and John Yoo gave them, opinions that provided protection. These opinions were called "a golden shield," a '"free get out of jail card," '"an advance pardon" because the OLC authoritatively, bindingly, opines for the federal government and, if the OLC says something is legal, then in future it will not be possible, or at least it will be very difficult, to successfully prosecute for the act. (TP, p. 149, NYT, Oct. 4, pp. 42-43.) While Goldsmith doesnt say so, and gives no sign of even having comprehended it although one is hard pressed to understand how such a smart guy could miss it, the hidden idea here is that the Nuremberg defense, which didnt work for the Germans, can be used by Americans, so that we have reneged on what we maintained at Nuremberg. In other words, if the OLC says we can lawfully waterboard someone, then government officials given the task can rely on this and not be prosecuted for waterboarding even though the entire rest of the world knows damn well that by waterboarding people we have tortured them. Goodbye Nuremberg."
I also suggest reading the article by Evan Wallach on todays Washington Post "Waterboarding used to be a Crime" where he gives clear explanations of what it is and what it does, and goes into history up to recent court decisions on people accused of torture by waterboarding even in the US.
(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/02/AR20071…)
"The United States knows quite a bit about waterboarding. The U.S. government -- whether acting alone before domestic courts, commissions and courts-martial or as part of the world community -- has not only condemned the use of water torture but has severely punished those who applied it."

DDilegge

Sat, 11/03/2007 - 8:11pm

Lookingpast

The SWJ is not a club in which members practice same-think. Our bloggers represent a wide spectrum of views on Small Wars related issues. Much like a "traditional" publication, when you open the op-ed page you find differences in opinion.

A difference in opinion does not equate to calling another a liar because of that difference.

Dont project. Thanks.

Headline Junky

Sat, 11/03/2007 - 7:16pm

<i>"Mr. Nance writes that he personally supervised the waterboarding of 'hundreds of people'. Nothing like that is going on. Nothing."</i>

My reading of this sentence in Mr. Nance's article was that the waterboardings he was referring to took place in his capacity as a master SERE trainer, not necessarily in actual interrogations.

That said, I'm not sure I understand Mr. West's point, since he first claims that "there is solid evidence that American lives have been saved by harsh interrogation", but shortly thereafter states that "Neither our advisers nor our military units are involved in waterboarding or other such techniques, be they labeled 'torture', or 'harsh interrogation' or whatever the vernacular."

Similarly, he points to the stricter military standards that have evolved over the past forty years with regards to advisory roles in interrogation, but then suggests that "the risk of narrowing the interrogation options that a president, current or future, may choose" outweighs the need to explicitly define torture techniques in order to ensure our compliance with Federal law, international treaty and moral consensus.

The value of Mr. Nance's article is that it allows the vast majority of us who have never witnessed or experienced waterboarding to make a more informed judgment of whether it is a technique that is consistent with our principles. And in light of his article, I would argue that, No, it is not.

This isn't a question of politics, but one of conscience and law.

Waterboarding should be legal, safe, and rare.

Whatever interrogation technique WORKS. Only the interrogators truly know the value of the tools in their tool box. Sometimes you need a sledge hammer. Everybody else is just kibbitzing, pontificating, bloviating or trying to lawfare us out of coercive interrogation altogether.

We don't OWE terrorists anything. They have no rights. They are not Prisoners of War. They are not defendants in a criminal trial.
<a href="http://www.legalaffairs.org/issues/July-August-2005/feature_burgess_jul…; rel="nofollow">They are neither ordinary criminals nor recognized state actors, . . they are <i>hostis humani generis</i>, "enemies of the human race." </a> If they are alive to be waterboarded, they already got more breaks than they deserve.

Lookingpast

Sat, 11/03/2007 - 2:25pm

This is very interesting and I'm curious about what Mr. Nance's reaction will be. (I'm new here; what happens when one member calls another a liar?) You are certainly correct (and I believe Mr. Nance made the same point) that waterboarding has become a political issue, but if I understand you correctly, your position is that its importance has been exaggerated because the U.S. military does not do it and the CIA rarely does it. (The fact that there are many other players involved that are outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. military/CIA leaves a huge hole in your argument.)

I strongly disagree that the importance of waterboarding has been exaggerated.

You write, "waterboarding or other such techniques, be they labeled "torture", or "harsh interrogation" or whatever the vernacular" as if the label didn't matter. Labels do matter, Mr. West; words have precise meanings and, especially in a matter of this importance, must be used accordingly. Torture and harsh interrogation are separate categories --the question is, under which category does this particular technique fall? Mr. Nance is unequivocal: waterboarding is torture. So, if we accept Mr. Nance's categorization, and I think we must, does the United States engage in torture?

Here's where we get to the heart of the matter: the current administration authorized the use of waterboarding. Therefore, because waterboarding is torture, our President has authorized the use of torture. This is the point, not how often it has been done and by whom, but that the use of torture is now official U.S. policy.

I am appalled and ashamed. This is, in total agreement with Mr. Nance, dishonorable. If we allow it to stand, we, the citizens of the United States, share in that dishonor.

As for "narrowing the interrogation options that a president, current or future, may choose"--doing what is honorable, what is right, always limits one's options.

And, frankly, I don't give a rat's ass if the current administration is "embarrassed." It's our duty to embarrass our elected officials when their actions deserve it.