CIA Bans Water-Boarding

CIA Director Michael Hayden has officially banned water-boarding, the most criticized of its interrogation techniques and one that has not been used in several years.

The practice of water-boarding has been branded as “torture” by human rights groups and a number of leading U.S. officials, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., because it amounted to a “mock execution.” Today, in New Hampshire, Sen. McCain told ABC News, “I have sought that result for years. Water-boarding is a form of torture. And I’m convinced that this will not only help us in our interrogation techniques, but it will also be helpful for our image in the world.”

While new legislation reportedly gave the CIA the leeway to use water-boarding, current and former CIA officials said Gen. Hayden decided to take it off the list of about six “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

While welcoming the move, some critics say the CIA did not go far enough. “I can say it’s a good thing, but the fact remains that the entire program is illegal,” John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told ABCNews.com.

As a result of the decision, officials say, the most extreme techniques left available to CIA interrogators would be what is termed “longtime standing,” which includes exhaustion and sleep deprivation with prisoners forced to stand, handcuffed with their feet shackled to the floor. “It is a very severe form of torture which causes tremendous psychic toll to people,” said Sifton.

It is believed that water-boarding was used on fewer than five “high-value” terrorist subjects, and had not been used for three to four years.

Its most effective use, say current and former CIA officials, was in breaking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, who subsequently confessed to a number of ongoing plots against the United States. A senior CIA official said KSM later admitted it was only because of the water-boarding that he talked. Ultimately, KSM took responsibility for the 9/ll attacks and virtually all other al Qaeda terror strikes, including the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. “KSM lasted the longest under water-boarding, about a minute and a half, but once he broke, it never had to be used again,” said a former CIA official familiar with KSM’s case.

Georgetown lawprof Marty Lederman, in a post entitled, “CIA Agrees to Cease One Form of Torture,” thinks, “Agreeing to stop using a technique that the U.S. deemed to be torture over 100 years ago . . . (not to mention a violation of the Geneva Conventions and customary international law)” is hardly a major concession.

Emperor Misha I, The Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler, responds with “CIA Wimps Hand Another Weapon to al-Qaeda,” and notes the success the technique had in the KSM case. Of course, I’d have confessed to those things too, under torture.

McCain is right here: The value that torture might occasionally bring is far outweighed by the damage it causes.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Intelligence, Terrorism, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I think there is a subtle distiction that needs to be made regarding the viability of what is generally referred to as torture, whether it be medieval methods using fire, pressure and sharp instruments or something more modern and less likely to leave a mark, e.g., sleep deprivation. Torturing someone to get a confession is cruel and of no value because, as you note, just about any of us would confess to just about anything eventually. That method has such a long and despicable pedigree that it cannot be condoned.

    But there is another situation under which such techniques can still perhaps be justified. This is usually referred to as the ticking time bomb scenario. If you have good reason to believe that a suspect does possess the knowledge to avert an impending catastrophe, generally because they have been an active participant in the planning or execution of a criminal or terrorist act, are all methods of physical and psychological coercion, no matter how benign, to be considered off limits because somewhere there is someone opposed to it?

    To be honest, I am not sure and any permission to use torture will be abused, as are virtually all powers granted or taken by a state, but I think it is problematic to conflate these two distinct cases where tortue is discussed and judge them both by the merits (or demerits) of the least defensible.

  2. Anderson says:

    Mr. Austin, those who have been following the torture debate merely shake their heads when someone pops up with the bright new idea of the “ticking bomb.”

    First, it’s a remarkably unlikely scenario, despite its prevalence in cinema.

    Second, given the premises of a great threat and a short time, that’s exactly the kind of scenario where a torture victim is most likely to resist successfully. (Hint: “Dantooine … they’re on Dantooine.”)

    Third, once a torture technique is authorized, it invariably spreads beyond its authorized use. Any guy you pick up MIGHT, perhaps, know of a ticking bomb … only one way to find out, eh?

    Fourth, legalizing torture in a genuine ticking-bomb situation is superfluous. If Charles Austin actually keeps L.A. from being nuked by torturing a guy, what jury is going to convict him, even if he cut off the subject’s testicles to get him to talk?

  3. Arnone says:

    We don’t need to get a jury to convict someone for information learned through water-boarding.
    We only need to avert the plans of the terrorists and watch or arrest the terrorists we learn about. What have we gained if one of our cities is nuked because we didn’t use the tools we could have used. Confessions given under torture are agreeably useless but terror cells and plans revealed are priceless if they save the lives of our people.

  4. Beldar says:

    It’s “Lederman.” He’s a good guy, for a lefty. 🙂

    [Fixed! Thanks – jhj]

    That something inflicts a “tremendous psychic toll” on its subjects doesn’t make it torture; or rather, a definition of the word “torture” that is so loose as to include that is meaningless.

  5. Mr. Anderson, note that I said it is usually called the ticking time bomb, not that I prefer that particular name, because if the bomb it ticking you’re probably already too late to do much about it. I don’t believe it is necessary to actually wait for the bomb to do something about it, i.e., the threat does not have to be imminent to act.

    It may well be that water boarding KSM saved lives from the information gleaned from whatever he might have said. I don’t know but I am willing to give our guys tasked with the responsibility of dealing with him a bit of latitude here. We didn’t need him to confess, and I doubt that’s why he was water boarded to begin with.

    I think I acknowledged that the power would be abused if granted to any authority, so I miss your point there.

    As to any scenario that has me cutting off a guy’s testicles, I doubt it will ever come to that, and if it did there are much more effective methods of infliting pain that I, or anyone else can readily think of. Unless, of course, he’s an Oklahoma fan.

  6. Tano says:

    gee, what are y’all talking about? I thought we never torture. My president told me so.

  7. James Joyner says:

    That something inflicts a “tremendous psychic toll” on its subjects doesn’t make it torture; or rather, a definition of the word “torture” that is so loose as to include that is meaningless.

    I agree in principle. I’m not sure that, say, sexual taunting and some of the things done at Abu Ghraib qualify as “torture,” even though they’re violations of the law of land warfare. Waterboarding, though, surely seems to be a black law case:

    Waterboarding consists of immobilizing an individual and pouring water over his or her face to simulate drowning. Waterboarding has been used to obtain information, coerce confessions, and also to punish, and/or intimidate. However, it is also used in some military training. It elicits the gag reflex, and can make the subject believe his or her death is imminent while not causing permanent physical damage.

    Some legal experts, and recently Sen. John McCain, regard waterboarding as a form of torture, specifically water torture. “The threat of imminent death” is one of the legal definitions of torture under U.S. law. Additionally the United Nations Convention Against Torture prohibits the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering.

  8. Anderson says:

    What have we gained if one of our cities is nuked because we didn’t use the tools we could have used.

    Arnone, torture is not a “tool” for obtaining valid intel. Its chief use has been to obtain false confessions — to witchcraft, bourgeois deviationism, whatever.

    The people who interrogate for a living and write the manuals on the subject, are as one in rejecting torture. There are better methods.

  9. legion says:

    Even if a torture subject gives a response, how can you know they’re not just saying what you want to hear to stop the pain? You can either take them at face value and stop the process, or go further, even after getting an answer, “just to make sure”.

    Arnone, torture is not a “tool” for obtaining valid intel. Its chief use has been to obtain false confessions — to witchcraft, bourgeois deviationism, whatever.

    Actually, Anderson, I’d go farther than that. Because of the incredibly dubious nature of any info obtained by torture, and the inherent brutality required to get anything at all, I would go so far as to state that torture is nothing more than an excuse to brutalize a powerless victim. It gives the torturer a chance to take sadistic revenge on some psychological surrogate for the person or group that truly threatens him, but provides exactly zero concrete benefit. Using it is, almost by definition, evidence of a deranged mind.

  10. Michael says:

    Fourth, legalizing torture in a genuine ticking-bomb situation is superfluous. If Charles Austin actually keeps L.A. from being nuked by torturing a guy, what jury is going to convict him, even if he cut off the subject’s testicles to get him to talk?

    That has always been my reaction to the “ticking time-bomb” hypothetical. If you are so sure of the immediate danger, and so sure that the suspect knows how to stop it, would breaking the law really be something that holds you back? If you could stop a nuke by robbing a liquor store, would you hesitate to do that? If you could stop a nuke by just killing the suspect, would you hesitate? No, so why would the fact that torture is illegal suddenly make you willing to allow a catastrophe instead of violate the law?

  11. Andy says:

    I might even go so far as to jaywalk in order to prevent a nuclear detonation in an American city.