And they gave Cheney a statue? Here's the honest history of waterboarding

The real history of waterboarding proves why torture should be a war crime -- and why it's ineffective

Published December 5, 2015 11:30AM (EST)

  (Reuters/William Philpott)
(Reuters/William Philpott)

Excerpted from "Does Torture Work?"

It is torture when an investigation is conducted with torment and force. . . . Torture is a weak and dangerous thing that may fail the truth.

—Ulpian, Justinian’s Digest

Marina Gonzàlez stood before the Toledan inquisitors Fernando de Mazuecos and Ferndando Rodríguez del Barco on April 29, 1494, and rejected their accusations of heresy. With this refusal, she was taken immediately to the torture chamber, stripped of her skirts, and bound tightly to the rack with cords, including her head. “They put a hood in front of her face, and with a jar that held three pints, more or less, they started to pour water down her nose and throat.” She refused to confess after the first pint so they poured the remaining two pints before removing the hood and cord from her head. She again refused to confess, was tied down again, and endured another three pints from the jar before the inquisitors ordered her brought down from the rack.

Juan de Salas stood before the inquisitor Moriz in Vallalodid on June 21, 1527, and once again denied he had blasphemed the evangelists. As a result, he was taken directly to the torture chamber, accompanied by the executioner Pedro Porras and the notary Henry Paz in addition to Moriz. Bound tightly to the escalera, a kind of grooved table that raises the legs above the head, a “fine wet cloth was put over his face, and about a pint of water was poured into his mouth and nostrils . . . nevertheless, Salas still persisted in denying the accusation.” (emphasis in original). After several more rounds of questioning, denials, and water-pouring, Salas was taken down from the escalera.

John Clarke passed the “weeping and lamenting” Samuel Colson on his way into the examining room in the Dutch fort at Amboyna on February 16, 1622.

Clarke was pulled two feet off the ground up onto a large door, his limbs outstretched and bound tightly with cords. A cloth was tied around his neck and folded up in a cone toward the top of his head. “That done, they poured 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 withall suck-in the water: which being still continued to be poured in softly, forced all his inward parts, came out of his nose, ears, and eyes, and often as it were stifling and choking him, at length took away his breath and brought him to a swoon or fainting. Then they took him quickly down and made him vomit up the water.” When he had recovered, his Dutch captors repeated the procedure three more times. Clarke’s continued resistance, his refusal to confess to a plot to take over the castle for the English, led the examiners to believe that he was possessed by the devil for withstanding so much. After adding burning his skin to the water torture and “leading” him along with the necessary details, he confessed and he was carried out by four men to the castle dungeon.

Jean Bourdil walked past a doctor and a priest and into the torture chamber of Toulouse on May 27, 1726. Surrounded by hooks, pulleys, ropes, weights, and other means of stretching human joints, he took an oath to tell the truth to his interrogators. A little while later, after those hooks, pulleys, ropes, and weights had failed to elicit his confession to the charge of killing two soldiers—just as they had two days prior—he was subjected to the question d’eau five times.

The question d’eau consisted of fastening the wrists of the accused to an iron ring bolted into the wall at waist height, and the feet, to another ring embedded in the floor, thus extending the prisoner’s body to its full length at a slant. Trestles of varying heights were then wedged under the prisoner’s back, forcing a further extension of the body. Finally, his face covered by a linen napkin, water was forced down his throat through a cow’s horn, as much as sixteen liters at a time.

During each session, Bourdil was asked to tell the truth, to confess to his guilt in the crime, or his complicity in the crime, or his knowledge of those who were guilty. After the fifth session the linen rag was removed from his mouth, and he was unstrapped from the bench and likely set down by a fire and ministered to by the doctor before being returned to his cell.

In New Castle, Alabama, on January 6, 1881, F.H. Gafford, an employee of a coal company, gave testimony to the Joint Special Committee of the state legislature conducting an inquiry into the treatment of convicts in Alabama. Mr. Gafford’s company “rented” convicts from the state as part of its convict leasing program and was asked about the punishments employed for “wilful neglect of work.” In order to secure compliance, Mr. Gafford testified that the company generally employed the “strap” but that on three occasions in the three years of his employ, they had “punished with water.” “In water punishment the man is strapped to his back and the water is poured in his face on the upper lip, and effectually stops his breathing as long as there is a constant stream. It is a very dangerous punishment.”

Ramon Navarro, a Filipino lawyer, had failed to provide the information sought by his Japanese interrogator after a morning of interrogation. It was World War II, and the Japanese occupiers of the Philippines were seeking information on guerilla activities. At around 2 p.m., the interrogator, Major Chinsaku Yuki, ordered Navarro to remove all of his clothes and lie down on his back on a bench. Navarro complied with both orders. Yuki then tied Navarro’s feet, hands, and neck to the bench. Once Navarro was secured to the bench, Yuki put a cloth on Navarro’s face and began pouring water from a nearby faucet on Navarro’s face. The stream of water continued until Navarro lost consciousness. The process was then repeated four or five times over the next two hours. At that point, Navarro told his interrogator a lie in an attempt to stop the “treatment.” When Yuki discovered the lie, he repeated the procedure on Navarro another two or three times.

Captain Chase Nielsen, a B-25 navigator, had provided nothing but his name, rank, and serial number to his Japanese interrogator on the afternoon of April 24, 1942. After failing to elicit more information on what would later be called the Doolittle Raid, the interrogator had four soldiers pin his arms and legs to the floor. Another soldier wrapped his face with a wet towel and poured water on the towel.

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 all over again. I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.

Nielsen was rescued at the end of the war, but returned to Shanghai to testify against his captors at a war crimes trial.

Thomas D. Harrison, a U.S. Air Force pilot, bailed out of his disabled jet on May 21, 1951, near Sinuiju, North Korea, and was captured. He refused to provide his captors any information, even after being starved for nine days.

One day in November he was beaten with clubs and sticks before being subjected to the “water treatment.”

They would bend my head back, put a towel over my face and pour water over the towel. I could not breathe. This went on hour after hour, day after day. It was freezing cold. When I would pass out, they would shake me and begin again. They would leave me tied to the chair with the water freezing on and around me.

Henri Alleg refused to divulge to his French paratrooper interrogators where he had been hiding, despite a beating and two sessions of electrical torture shortly following his arrest on Wednesday, June 12, 1957, in Algiers. Still strapped by his wrists and ankles to a black plank, one of his interrogators asked him if he “knew how to swim” and the paratroopers picked up the plank and carried Alleg into the kitchen of the apartment in the unfinished building that served as the interrogation center the Algiers suburb of El-Biar. They rested the plank on the edge of the sink and two paratroopers held up the other end. One of the troopers near the sink attached a rubber tube to the tap and then wrapped a rag around Alleg’s head. His mouth wedged open with a small piece of wood, they told him to move his fingers when he wanted to talk.

Then they turned on the 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 myself from suffocation. In spite of myself, the fingers of my two hands shook uncontrollably. “That’s it! He’s going to talk,” said a voice.

When Alleg again fell silent after he had caught his breath, the torturers yelled, “He’s playing games with us! Put his head under again!”

This time I clenched my fists, forcing the nails into my palm. I had decided I was not going to move my fingers again. It was better to die of asphyxiation right away. I feared to undergo again that terrible moment where I felt myself losing consciousness, while at the same time fighting with all my power not to die. I did not move my hands, but three times I knew again this insupportable agony. In extremis, they let me get my breath back while I threw up the water. The last time I lost consciousness.

Nguyen Cong arrived at LZ English on the southeastern coast of Vietnam in the fall of 1968. Suspected of belonging to the Viet Cong, he was interrogated on the morning of August 21 by Staff Sgt. David Carmon, of the 172nd Military Intelligence detachment. Carmon later admitted to using the “water rag” in his interrogations: “I held the suspect down, placed a cloth over his face and then poured water over the cloth, thus forcing water into his mouth. The suspect, after becoming choked on the water, confessed that he was a VC and stated he was a propaganda man.” In the Cong case, Carmon “poured water on his face from a five gallon can.” Carmon and other interrogators also slapped, kicked, and beat Cong. Carmon later said that “our intentions were never to hurt anyone, we simply wanted the information . . . . This is the reason that we primarily used water. Water poured over a cloth gave a sensation of drowning that generally scared the PW into talking.” A little before 11 a.m. and still under interrogation, Cong went into convulsions and died from a ruptured spleen, as a result of either external trauma or malaria.

Kevin Coffman was arrested in Coldspring, Texas, in the fall of 1979 for drug possession and put in the old San Jacinto County jail. Having been sentenced to six months in the jail for a misdemeanor offense, he was made a “trusty” after a couple of weeks. One morning after about two months in jail, he was taken along with another inmate, Craig Punch, to the new county jail still under construction. Each prisoner was placed in his own cell; and Deputy Sheriff Floyd Baker handcuffed Coffman to a brace in the wall, securing him to the chair he was sitting in. Coffman was left alone for a time before deputies Baker, Carl Lee, and John Glover entered his cell.

Deputy Baker folded a towel along its longer axis twice, wrapped it tightly around Coffman’s face, and pulled his head back. Deputy Glover “took a bucket of water and slowly poured it over the towel, asking [Coffman] questions every once in a while.”  Coffman was being questioned over a theft of money from the property room (as a trusty he had access to it). The deputies divided their labor neatly, with Glover pouring the water, Lee refilling the bucket, and both Glover and Baker asking questions. Coffman struggled so much that even with the handcuffs the deputies had difficulty holding him down, so they tied his feet together with belts and secured his feet to his hands with handcuffs. When asked at trial about why he was struggling, Coffman said he was frightened. He was “afraid of drowning; it was hard to breathe. . . . I was just trying to fight that bucket of water.” “It seemed like it lasted forever, but I guess maybe two hours.” Coffman testified that he knew nothing about the money, but told two lies to stop the torture, and eventually the deputies stopped.

About one year later, on a late September evening in 1980, James Hicks was transferred from the Montgomery County jail to the new San Jacinto County jail. Accused of taking San Jacincto County Sheriff James Parker’s tractor, Hicks denied knowing anything about it. Parker responded that Hicks would be “begging to tell them where the tractor was” and Hicks was taken to a small holding cell in the back of the jail. After half an hour, Hicks was made to change into white coveralls and then, after about another half hour, he was taken by Deputy Baker to a detox cell. The cell was about ten feet by eight feet with a “little concrete ledge built on the back part of the cell” six or eight inches off the floor, which sloped to a drain in the middle. The only piece of furniture in the room was a wooden armchair.

Baker kept asking him where “our” tractor was. Other deputies and a trusty came in and out. At one point, Hicks was blindfolded. His hands were handcuffed behind his back and he was sat in the chair. Deputy Baker gave leg irons to a trusty and instructed him to shackle Hicks’s legs to the legs of the chair. Hicks stood up and kicked the trusty. A struggle ensued with deputies Baker and Lee struggling to shackle Hicks to the chair. Lee would hit Hicks with a blackjack every time Hicks kicked him, at least six times, so that his eyes began to swell nearly shut very quickly.

Once Hicks was subdued and shackled to the chair, the deputies tied a rope around his midsection and Deputy Baker covered Hicks’s nose and mouth with a towel. They set the chair backside down on the floor with the legs resting on the concrete ledge and Hicks’s head down on the floor, sloping toward the drain. “Then they poured water over my face through the towel and drowned me. . . . I was drowning. . . . I thought I was going to drown.” This went on for “probably” five to ten minutes, though “it seemed like a lot longer.”

After “stomping” on Hicks’s stomach, the deputies set the chair back up, removed the blindfold, and began questioning him again about the location of the tractor. Eventually, Hicks gave them a location, though he knew there was no tractor there. When asked why he told the deputies that, Hicks said, “I didn’t want them to do it again. I would have took them anywhere, just about.”

According to one of the now infamous “torture memos” from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), in waterboarding

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 now is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds due to the presence of the 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. The individual does not breathe any water into his lungs. 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 sensation of drowning is immediately relieved by the removal of the cloth. The procedure may then be repeated. The water is usually applied from a canteen cup or small watering can with a spout. You have orally informed us that this procedure triggers an automatic physiological sensation of drowning that the individual cannot control even though he may be aware that he is in fact not drowning.

Khalid Shiekh Mohammed was led by a guard from his cell into another room in March 2003, in a secret prison in Stare Kiejkuty, Poland, one of the CIA’s “black sites.” The room, its essential contents—a tilted gurney or bench with arm and leg restraints, a couple of cloths, and a pitcher of water—and its purpose were all well known to Mohammed. Over the course of that month, he had spent a lot of time in this room, though he probably couldn’t say exactly how much. What happened now was more or less what had happened over 180 times since the beginning of March.

He was strapped to the “special bed,” with his head on the downward side of the incline. With his head held immobile by one of his captors, one of the cloths was placed over his face, covering his nose and mouth. With a doctor and a psychologist looking on, water was poured onto the cloth. KSM ingested enough water to “distend” his abdomen, and water gushed out when his stomach was pressed. To prevent him from ingesting the water, interrogators cupped their hands around his mouth in order to maintain a continuous “pool” of water. At one point, contractors Jessen and Mitchell seized an opportunity to pour water into his mouth when he attempted to speak.

Now, suppose I tell you I am writing a history of the Inquisition and its trials and I write the following sentence about what happened to Marina Gonzàlez in 1494 and to Juan de Salas in 1527: “Upon the refusal of Gonzàlez and Salas to provide any information, the inquisitors employed enhanced interrogation techniques.” Or what if I’m writing about imperial competition and I write the following sentence about the Amboyna case of 1622: “At a time of increasing tensions with the British and the possibility of a plot to seize the strongest of the Dutch fortifications, the commander ordered enhanced interrogation techniques be used upon John Clarke.” Or suppose I’m writing about police interrogation methods in the United States and I use the following to describe what happened in San Jacinto County in 1983: “In a departure from usual police practice, Sheriff Parker used enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Do these descriptions ring hollow to you? Do they sound anachronistic? Do they sound euphemistic? Now suppose it is the year 3157. You are writing a history of interrogations and torture and cover the same cases we just considered above. Would you use the word “torture” to describe the Gonzàlez, Salas, Bourdil, the Alabama prisoner, Navarro, Nielsen, Harrison, Alleg, Nguyen, Hicks, and Coffman cases, but use the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe the KSM case? Would you claim that pouring water over a cloth into someone’s mouth is torture in 1494, 1527, 1622, 1726, 1881, 1942, 1958, 1969, and 1983, but not in 2003? Probably not. But this is what the Bush administration’s Justice Department attempted to claim.

The U.S. Department of Justice has not always held this view. Here’s the phrase used repeatedly by the U.S. district attorney in the trial of the San Jacinto County sheriff and his deputies in 1983: “water torture.” Even the lawyers for the defendants used the term “water torture” to describe the events.

The only difference between the techniques used on James Hicks and KSM is two decades. A cloth covers the mouth, water is poured over the cloth to produce a drowning sensation—the act is the same. If the act itself does not change, then it is the same thing, whether we use a euphemism or whether or not the laws written around it have changed. Waterboarding is torture. It was torture when it was used by the Inquisition in 1494 and it was torture when it was used by the CIA in 2003. It meets the everyday “interocular trauma” test.

Excerpted from "Does Torture Work?" by John W. Schiemann. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2016 by John W. Schiemann. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By John W. Schiemann

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