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.”