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November 30th, 2005 · 5 Comments

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?

Tags: War



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gil // Dec 2, 2005 at 3:04 pm

    What’s your point?

    It’s obvious that aggressive interrogation will generate false confessions.

    Hopefully, there are ways to cross-check information to determine if it’s reliable.

    Even more hopefully, there are a lot of steps taken before aggressive interrogation is used to ensure that the person actually has the information sought (and also that the person is guilty enough and/or the information is valuable enough to justify the tactic).

    If you’re trying to argue that we shouldn’t use powerful methods because they encourage false as well as true confessions, I don’t think it’s a persuasive argument.

    There may be other good reasons to not do this, but this doesn’t seem like one.

    It’s kind of like saying: we shouldn’t execute people in ways that are guaranteed to kill them, because it will also kill innocent people.

    Executing (and aggressively interrogating)innocents is a big problem, and one to be avoided. But, it doesn’t argue against having an effective technique.

  • 2 Steven Maloney // Dec 3, 2005 at 12:36 pm

    I think you are missing the part where Julian is a whacky throwback to believing in the idea that people have rights, and there are ways to derive that those rights, and that these rights then are to be protected by the state, because the state is the holder in trust of all of its citizens understanding of good society. (How’d I do Julian?)
    Therefore, one does not want the state to become a powerful instrument to be focused and directed at people because it can then steamroll individuals, the only unit of importance,(see: John Locke) since there is no such thing as collective consciousness and therefore it was only individuals who created the state in the first place.
    Given the fact that we fear the power that can be wielded by the many against the on (See: John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu, Alexis De Tocqueville, etc.), if we follow this logic, we should be constantly vigilant about the state’s use of excessive force, which they might try to do simply because they can.
    Using techniques that treat people so ridiculously as means and not ends is a pretty good sign that the state is acting barbarously in excess. Also, since not everyone lives under one state, to ensure the safety of the individuals who contract to make a state, we ask the state to make promises on our own behalf. When the state makes promises about the rules of war, secures those promises, and then chooses to selectively honor them simply because they are the stronger party (for example: asking for the right to hold enemy combatants while at the same time torturing people), well, history shows that this is a vulgar and also dangerous way to behave.
    Furthermore, since when did utility become an acceptable argument for torture? Sorry John McCain, I’d sympathize but the VC found it USEFUL to torture you, so I’m going to have to say they were within rights. Does that sound like agood argument?

  • 3 Gil // Dec 3, 2005 at 4:43 pm


    I wasn’t trying to defend torture.

    I was trying to understand whether or not Julian was trying to make an argument to people who think it is justified in some cases that there will be worse consequences if we use techniques such as waterboarding than if we use other, less aggressive, techniques.

    If he was trying to make such an argument, then I don’t understand it.

    If he was just speaking to those who already oppose torture and suggesting that using techniques such as this might cause bad problems…

    Then, well…Duh.

  • 4 Carlos // Dec 7, 2005 at 11:17 am

    I would be more skeptical about the whole story. I know some people who were subjected to a variant of this technique and most of them talked about hours of treatment (sometimes days). And of course, some of them didn’t break. I suspect some disinformation on the part of the CIA sources. After all, a method that effective would have brought down Al Qaeda in a matter of months, wouldn’t it?

  • 5 Barry // Dec 12, 2005 at 9:24 pm

    Gil, the problem is that, judging from what we’ve seen of the Bush adminstration, ‘hopefully’ means ‘probably not’. And, as far as I can tell, it get worse from there onward.

    One thing that I’ve heard about the Stalin era was the the police had their production quotas, along with everybody else. They had to find X enemies of the state/counterrevolutionaries/Kulaks/Kulak sympathisers each month. They did it by torture, of course. There’s an excerpt from the Gulag Archipelago about how the Soviet secret police got confessions, which I read recently. There were two themes – first, getting a confession from a random schmuck in the course of a week, without obvous signs of torture is quite doable – sleep deprivation seemed to be the one that the gulag inmates said worked the best. Second, the system was designed to generate confessions. All else didn’t really matter.