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Waterboarding is a form of torture that involves the use of water to coerce a prisoner or detainee into a confession. The victim is tied to an inclined board that positions the head lower than the feet. A piece of cloth is then secured over the victim’s face. Water is poured over the cloth, and the victim begins to experience difficulty breathing. Waterboarding proves particularly effective in that fear of asphyxiation often leads the victim to panic and beg for the torture to cease. Routine interrogations that normally may take days produce results in minutes when waterboarding is used.
There are variations on waterboarding methods. Sometimes, plastic wrap is used. Another method involves tipping the board back and submerging the person’s head under the water. No matter what the method, waterboarding has both a physical and psychological component. Once the person begins to experience difficulty breathing and the gag reflex kicks in, the individual truly believes that he or she is going to die. Then, the captors will “rescue” the victim, pulling off the cloth or raising the head out of the water. The victim believes that death is imminent and that intense fear breaks down his or her resistance.
Ironically, actual drowning during waterboarding torture is rare due to the fact that the position of the lungs in relation to the head prevents enough water from filling the lungs. But waterboarding can cause serious injury. A victim can suffer brain damage due to lack of oxygen and there can be damage to the lungs. The psychological after-effects can be even more devastating.
Waterboarding dates back to the Italian Inquisition in the 1500s, and has been used ever since. In the U.S., waterboarding has been considered illegal since the Spanish-American War when a U.S. Army major was found guilty of using waterboarding to torture a Philippine insurgent. The major was sentenced to ten years as punishment.
During the Vietnam War, waterboarding was used on North Vietnamese prisoners, and in one case, a soldier was court-martialed and discharged from the U.S. Army after photographs of him applying the torture appeared in the Washington Post.
In May 2004, the New York Times reported that waterboarding was used in the interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. In fact, there are reports that Mohammed, who is considered to be one of the key planners of the attacks of 9/11, was able to endure two and a half minutes of waterboarding before breaking down. This is considered to be a record in that most victims don’t last for a minute. In fact, CIA agents, who are required to undergo waterboarding as part of their training, normally cannot endure more than 40 seconds of the torture.
The U.S. Government does not officially condone waterboarding as an interrogation method, however. In 2002, commanders at Guantanamo requested permission to use waterboarding on detainees. Permission was denied.
In an October 2006 interview with the conservative journal Human Events, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) addressed the issue of waterboarding as a means by which to gather information. He responded to a question regarding a statement by ABC’s Brian Ross that waterboarding was used in the interrogation of Mohammed. Roberts responded, “That is one of the techniques that will not be used any more.”
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is waterboarding and how is it performed?
Waterboarding is an interrogation technique that simulates the experience of drowning. The subject is restrained on a board with their feet elevated, and a cloth is placed over their face. Water is then poured over the cloth, which restricts breathing and induces panic and fear. The method triggers an involuntary gag reflex, making the person feel as if they are suffocating, even though they can still breathe around the water to some extent.
Is waterboarding considered a form of torture?
Yes, waterboarding is widely considered a form of torture. International human rights organizations, legal experts, and many governments classify it as such due to the severe physical and psychological distress it causes. For instance, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the United States ratified in 1994, defines torture as any act that inflicts severe pain or suffering for purposes such as obtaining information, and waterboarding fits this definition.
Has waterboarding been used by the United States government?
The United States government has acknowledged the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique, particularly during the post-9/11 era, as part of its "enhanced interrogation techniques." The CIA used waterboarding on several key detainees suspected of terrorism. However, its use has been highly controversial and was banned by the Obama administration in 2009.
What are the psychological and physical effects of waterboarding on individuals?
Waterboarding can lead to long-term psychological and physical effects. Psychologically, it can cause severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), lasting fear of water, and more. Physically, it can result in extreme pain, damage to the lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, and even death if the procedure is not carefully monitored and controlled.
Are there any legal repercussions for those who authorize or perform waterboarding?
Legal repercussions for authorizing or performing waterboarding depend on the jurisdiction and whether it is classified as torture under local laws. In countries that have ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, like the United States, individuals could potentially face prosecution for war crimes. However, enforcement varies, and historically, high-level officials in the U.S. have not been prosecuted for authorizing these techniques.