Saturday, March 8, 2008

Waterboarding: What is it? Why Do it?

It's 'obvious' that waterboarding is horribly awful. 'Everybody know that,' from Dianne Feinstein on down the ladder.

Just What is Waterboarding?

I finally found a description of the interrogation technique, in "Bush vetoes bill banning waterboarding" CNN (March 8, 2008): "It involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his or her cloth-covered face to simulate and create the sensation of drowning."

It sounds quite unpleasant.

I certainly wouldn't want to experience it. But then, I'd just as soon not go through an American soldier's military training. (Hats off to ZacharyR, whose comment on yesterday's post encouraged me to leave the training quotes in.)

Is Waterboarding Torture?

"During Tuesday's testimony [to Congress], [CIA Director Michael V.] Hayden said that depriving the CIA of enhanced techniques would place America in greater danger. After the hearing, a senior U.S. intelligence official argued that waterboarding should not be considered torture because the U.S. military has subjected its own personnel to the method to prepare them for the possibility of being captured.

" 'Tens of thousands of American Air Force and naval airmen were waterboarded as part of their survival training,' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'We don't maim as part of our training. We don't mutilate. We don't sodomize. Those are things that are always bad. . . . Intellectually, there has got to be a difference between [waterboarding] and the others; otherwise we wouldn't have done it in training.' " Los Angeles Times (February 7, 2008)

The Los Angeles Times called the White House statement that waterboarding is legal "shocking." Maybe it is. After all, Congress made sure the the field manual doesn't include it, the Supreme Court disapproves of it, and a presidential candidate (McCain) says that the Geneva Convention doesn't allow it.

That isn't the most convincing set of arguments for me. The Los Angeles Times article argues on the basis of authority: and that sort of argument works only if the authorities cited may be respected and believed.
  • Congress may make sensible decisions from time to time. But there are too many members of that club who like to send my taxes to their constituents; make decisions for ideological (and possibly psychiatric) reasons; or both; for me to trust everything that's extruded by that august body.
  • The Supreme Court is part of a judicial system that I keep trying to respect. Judges and officials who have judicial powers don't help my efforts. ("Tap Dancing Marine Recruiters and Other Threats" Another War-on-Terror Blog (March 7, 2008))
  • The Geneva Conventions are a set of rules that have been around in one form or another since 1864, with a major upgrade in 1949. They're an admirable attempt to establish humanitarian standards. But they're the product of human effort. And, particularly since they come from the same northwestern-European culture whose Nobel Prize committee gave Yasser Arafat the Nobel Peace Prize, I think it's permissible to question the infallibility of the Geneva Conventions.
The American military have their faults, too. But their code of behavior, willingness to accept risks without significant reward, and rational approach to problem-solving (bizarre experiments like gender-norming aside) have my respect.

I find it difficult to believe that a technique which is a part of American soldiers' training would be, in fact, torture. The best minds of Berkeley notwithstanding: America's military doesn't torture. America isn't that kind of a place.

Why Use Waterboarding?

Waterboarding has been called "harsh," and so isn't one of the 19 approved interrogation techniques found in the U.S. military field manual.

Why use such a harsh technique? Especially when American news organizations clearly state that it hurts America's image?

A simple, quick, answer for Americans who may have been away from Earth for the last six and a half years:
  • Bad people are trying to kill Americans.
  • Many Americans don't want them to succeed
As I wrote in a post yesterday ("Waterboarding Ban Set for Veto Tomorrow: Let the Moralizing Begin" (March 7, 2008)), there are quite a number of people who want to kill Americans. These people aren't very nice. They don't care that refusing to answer questions isn't polite.

The bill that was vetoed today would have imposed on CIA interrogators, the same set of 19 interrogation techniques that the military are allowed to use.

The problem is that the CIA doesn't deal with ordinary combatants on a battlefield.

"Bush said the CIA must retain use of 'specialized interrogation procedures' that the military doesn't need. The military methods are designed for questioning 'lawful combatants captured on the battlefield,' while intelligence professionals are dealing with 'hardened terrorists' who have been trained to resist the techniques in the Army manual, the president said."

Simplistic as it may seem, that sounds reasonable to me. The CIA isn't the army. The two groups don't have the same mission. And so, it isn't reasonable to have them both follow the same rules.

I think the question comes down to whether waterboarding is torture. It's possible to describe it as getting the subject's face wet, while making it difficult to breathe. Put it that way, and the experience doesn't sound very bad.

And, it's used on American troops as part of their training.

It doesn't sound like what I understand as "torture."

Of course, I'm no expert. Perhaps the psychophysical manifestations of primordial phobias invoked by the application of waterboarding are so traumatic, that this use of a board, a cloth, and some water is, in fact, torture. Maybe.

Perhaps the 19 approved techniques in the field manual are all that the CIA needs. I hope so.

Because if they're not, and Congress succeeds in protecting terrorists from American intelligence agencies, someone may very likely have to give a speech that will run something like this, in part:

"Although the death of over seventy five thousand people at Qualcomm Stadium during the Superbowl is a tragedy, we may find solace in this thought: At no time since 2008 has America used harsh methods when interrogating terrorist leaders."


Ottavio (Otto) Marasco said...

I think we no why it’s done and what it involves. I do not think I would cope every well with it but my coping depends on its intensity and duration. I am not going to quibble with the difference between 'lawful combatants captured on the battlefield,' and 'hardened terrorists’; it should be obvious that the latter may call for special circumstances in terms of soliciting information. We all must realise that waterboarding is meant to inflict torment and sufferance on the individual, I am sure that you would agree when considering torture, better to be a terrorist captured by Americans, than an American captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Brian H. Gill said...

American Interests,

Thanks for stopping by.

I did another (and, mercifully, briefer) post on this topic.

And yes, I think that terrorists captured by American troops are better off than Americans captured by terrorists.

I also think that the Atlantic is wet. ;)

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.