“Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” Sarah Palin told an audience at the National Rifle Association’s Stand and Fight rally last weekend. She would reinstitute the practice, she told listeners, calling it a valuable technique.
What Sarah Palin perhaps doesn’t know is that when al Qaeda was being formed, the middle eastern extremists who were using terrorism to fight their own corrupt governments had finally given up fighting inside their own governments in the face of overwhelming force. Realizing that they couldn’t stop their own governments they began to look for who was on the outside—funding and propping up torturous and unjust regimes. And that led them to begin to question foreign policies carried out by the U.S. and the EU. Ideologically it led to the budding AQ terrorists labeling the west as the “Great Satan” and to their new initiatives of attacking us. They called that an attack on the “the head of the snake.”
Sarah Palin, like all of us wants that to stop. But is she right about how to go about it?
Waterboarding, a technique in which water is poured over the angled face of a prisoner—so as to fill his nose, mouth and lungs—terrifyingly creates the feeling of drowning. “When performed on an unsuspecting prisoner, waterboarding is a torture technique—without a doubt,” Malcolm Nance, former master instructor and chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego states. “There is no way to sugarcoat it,” he writes, referring to that he personally witnessed and supervised the waterboarding of hundreds of U.S. military trainees who were drilling to resist torture.
“It does not simulate drowing,” Nance states, “as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning … “Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.”
“Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration” Nance continues. “Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. If it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia – meaning, the loss of all oxygen to the cells.”
And horrifyingly, the lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again.
Waterboarding was on the CIA’s list of approved “enhanced interrogation technique’s” for use against high-value terror suspects in 2005, and was included in a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice memo released in April 2009 as an approved torture technique. Waterboarding was carried out under the Bush administration but has now been condemned by President Obama as “torture”.
According to journalist Julia Layton, when waterboarding was used in counter-interrogation training for CIA operatives and Navy SEALs, the trainees could not survive it without breaking. According to her sources, CIA members have lasted an average of fourteen seconds before begging to be released.
Being subjected to drowning and feeling that one is imminently about to die is a powerful psychological torture method and it breaks down both our guys, as well as our enemies. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 was water boarded and reportedly managed to last an impressive two minutes. Perhaps his faith kept him steady in the face of overwhelming terror. Yet he too broke and began confessing.
No doubt water boarding works to create terror and an overwhelming sensation of imminent death by drowning. Yet while Palin believes that water boarding is a useful interrogation technique, those who have had it in their arsenal of “torture” tools disagree. CIA officials according to Layton, stated that it is a poor interrogation tool because it scares the prisoner so much you can’t trust anything they tell you as a result.
When Jesse Ventura, the colorful, former Minnesota governor recalls how he was waterboarded as part of his Navy SEAL training to resist torture techniques he states, “It’s drowning. It’s torture,” and that it can kill you. Trying to make the point of how serious waterboarding is and that one will say anything to make it stop, he declared to Larry King, “You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders!”
In September 2006, Senator John McCain, who had been tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam stood up to his party and tried to outlaw torture techniques against all U.S. held prisoners. In 2006, the U.S. military also made it illegal for the any members of the military to use this technique. Shamefully, it took longer for the CIA to catch up.
“The lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again,” Nance writes adding that whoever carries out waterboarding has to move from humanity to hatred and overcome basic human decency to endure causing its torturous effects.
And our use of such methods has now opened Pandora’s box for what may be considered by terrorists as acceptable to be used against our soldiers. Just as now dead, Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basaev stated that he justified the terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, because poisons had been used by the Russian government to kill his cadres—terrorists often attempt to justify their acts on the basis of our own.
Nance writes, “Our own missteps have already created a cadre of highly experienced lecturers for Al Qaeda’s own virtual school for terrorists” Indeed, even when we try to keep torture methods classified, convicted AQ members and released captives broadcast widely over the Internet what they were subjected to and how they endured.
While Sarah Palin may believe “soft” torture that leaves no physical marks of harm done is useful, waterboarding is nevertheless psychologically devastating. And that it is a useful tool for interrogating is also not a strongly supported position among those in the know. Just as I learned when I was helping build what became the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for our 20,000 detainees in Iraq, the best approaches to interrogation are to find common ground, rapport and build a relationship where the detainee begins to trust and open up. Terror and pain may make a person “talk” but what they say in order to escape from torture often doesn’t add up.
And the anger in that person over being mistreated and in others—including family members and friends—who learn of it often creates more of a threat than elicits any useful information.
Indeed when the pictures from Abu Ghraib circled the world via the Internet, and now, when burned up corpses of children killed in drone attacks are sent around via YouTube—these powerful images of what the West is all about to those who haven’t yet decided if what the militant jihadi terrorists claim in their anti-Western ideology is correct. And it only takes one or two of these—like the Tsarnaev brothers for example, to jump into the terrorist camp and wreak havoc for all of us.
Images and stories about torture and acts that cross the bounds of human decency can easily be used to push fence sitters into the enemy’s camp ideologically and also to then move them along the terrorist trajectory into finally enacting terrorism.
While Sarah Palin may consider herself a patriot, all we need are more Americans publicly espousing waterboarding, and other unacceptable terror methods, to push even more potential enemies into believing that indeed the West is serving, or is itself, the Great Satan.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world.