The issue of water-boarding has become quite the political flashpoint in recent weeks. First there was an uproar when Michael Mukasey, now our Attorney General, stated his uncertainty as to whether or not this “interrogation” technique constituted torture. Shamefully, he is not alone. Many officials in our intelligence community insist that it does not. (Perhaps they should give it a try.) Next, Congressional leaders urged that this and other special CIA methods be banned for good, with predictable protests from the White House. Now we learn that the CIA has destroyed secret videotapes of two high value detainees being subjected to water-boarding. Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who gave the order, is a colleague of Terry Ward, who covered up my husband’s ongoing torture and eventual murder in Guatemala years ago. There are too many historical ironies here.
To begin with, the sanitized and highly deceptive language being used should itself be banned. Duping the American public is hardly the proper solution to international charges of war crimes. Our intelligence leaders tell us that water-boarding consists of placing a cloth over the prisoner’s face, then pouring water over him until he "thinks he is going to drown." This sounds like little more than a scare technique. The description is so benign, in fact, that one wonders how the method could convince any prisoner to talk.
A number of my friends survived water-boarding sessions in Latin America, and they give a rather different description. As my friend "O," a former POW in Guatemala tells me, his army tormentors immersed him in a vat of water. He tried desperately to hold his breath, but finally the water rushed into his head, causing terrible pain. He remembers gagging and choking, and a mounting pressure that made him think his eardrums would burst. He felt himself vomiting and going into convulsions. He awoke on the floor to find his torturers administering CPR. We shared this description with the United Nations Committee Against Torture last year. The Committee members had no difficulty in declaring this technique a form of torture, and banning it outright. Senator John McCain, himself a torture survivor, has long said the same. Water-boarding is a slow and very painful mock execution, in short, "exquisite torture."
Even more disturbing is the fact that many of these Latin American prisoners were tortured with the guidance, payment and even presence of CIA agents. In the case of "O," an American entered his secret cell, observed his shocking condition, questioned him for some time, then simply walked away. Ines Murillo was severely tortured in Honduras by members of Batallion 316. She endured "stress positions”"that permanently damaged her arms and shoulders, and was water boarded until she lost consciousness. She has long reported that an American came by often to ask questions, observe and advise. The CIA brass, reluctantly, has admitted the man was one of their agents. These cases were not rare. They were common.
If one listens to these testimonies, certain conclusions are unavoidable. First, the methods in questions constitute clear and heinous forms of torture. This is precisely why the CIA has destroyed the water-boarding tapes. The American people would never stand for it. Second, techniques like water-boarding, stress positions, frightening dogs, and temperature extremes, are nothing new. They have been refined, used and taught by the CIA for decades. The methods do not represent the sins of young, undisciplined soldiers. Rather, they are planned and perfected techniques ordered by our highest officials.
Perhaps most frightening, though, is the realization that our intelligence officials have inflicted these forms of agony for decades before the horrors of September 11, 2001. There were no security crises facing the United States in Guatemala or Chile. What were we doing in bed with the likes of Augusto Pinochet or Efrain Rios Montt, both charged with systemic war crimes in international tribunals?
If Mr. Mukasey is uncertain as to the legality of water-boarding, he should review our own criminal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2340. This law makes it a felony for any American officer to torture a prisoner abroad. Torture is defined as any technique that would cause severe pain. Mental torture includes mock executions. Both can result in a 20 year prison sentence or even worse if the prisoner dies. Our international treaties, from the Geneva Conventions to the Convention Against Torture, are equally clear. Before we scoff at these long standing legal prohibitions as "naïve," we might consider our own troops. If water boarding is legal, our young men and women will be on the receiving end one day.
Does torture gain us any security? Historically it has never worked. We need only recall the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, and our own experiences in Vietnam. The Israelis have used very harsh security measures since the first Intifada, but the number of suicide bombers has increased. The Iraqis once tossed flowers to our troops in Baghdad, but now toss bombs. Our "tough" measures seem to have backfired.
Does torture make people talk? It does. The problem is that the victim will say anything at all to stop the pain. One detainee in Abu Ghraib admitted under torture that he was Osama Ben Laden in disguise. Torture gains us nothing but a flood of inaccurate information. Thus, despite our use of torture, Osama himself remains at large after six long years. We hear endlessly about the "ticking bomb," but this myth just doesn't work. If a powerful bomb was about to explode, and our agents seized and tortured the wrong prisoner, he would invent an answer. We would then rush to the wrong place and the bomb would still go off as planned. If we were to capture someone who did know the location, his partners would have moved the bomb as soon as he disappeared.
Clearly there are no easy solutions. But we might start with some simple concepts; communication, mutual respect, and an emphasis on humanitarian efforts, instead of a resort to brutality and terror ourselves.
Jennifer Harbury is the author of Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture. She has lived and worked with human rights activists, peasants, and Mayan villagers in Guatemala. Harbury also worked with members of the U.S. Congress and the Organization of American States to locate her husband and thirty-five other members of the Guatemalan resistance believed to be held by the military. She is the author of Searching for Everardo and Bridge of Courage.