This ABC News story on CIA interrogation tactics is old news by now, but there was one section I’d meant to comment on:
Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.
According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.
Waterboarding has ended up with a prominent role in the torture debate because it’s the (officially sanctioned) interrogation method that seems most at odds with the administration’s claims that “we don’t torture.” So, of course,
torture “aggressive interrogation” apologists have been at pains to deny that waterboarding fits that description.
Let’s ignore entirely the description of the tactic for a moment—it sounds pretty bad, but I expect we can’t assume we’re able to imagine accurately what it’s like, and I’m in no great hurry to find out. Instead, try this thought experiment.
Imagine you’re a dedicated fighter for a cause in which you believe zealously and absolutely—a cause to which you’ve committed your life wholeheartedly. You’ve been captured by your enemies, who are going to try to get you to disclose information that could be damaging, maybe crippling, to that cause using a variety of techniques. (If you’ve got military experience, perhaps imagine that this is information that would endanger the lives of others in your unit.) Now, me, I’m a pampered urban wordsmith; I have no pretensions to being a tough guy. Probably I’d break sooner or later. But I’d llike to think (if it might make a difference), I could hold out against the infliction of pain for a while. Imagine, say, they’re breaking bones, or giving you electric shocs. Do you think you could hold out for an hour? For a half hour?
Now imagine your captors tell you they’re about to subject you to an interrogation tactic that typically breaks people in seconds. Hardboiled CIA agents were awed when the toughest guy they’ve got held out for two-and-a-half minutes before “begging to confess.” Not knowing anything else, would you be inclined to think that whatever they’re about to do must count as torture?
Now imagine you’re just someone picked up by accident—a farmer in the wrong place at the wrong time. You’ve got no real information to give up, but you’ve got a pretty good idea what your captors want to hear. How long do you hold out then in maintaining your innocence?