Finding Osama Bin Laden

The recent death of Osama Bin Laden is re-igniting the debate over coercive interrogation, with some claiming that recent success vindicates whatever practices have been used in the past, supported by an early-breaking AP story:

Officials say CIA interrogators in secret overseas prisons developed the first strands of information that ultimately led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Current and former U.S. officials say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, provided the nom de guerre of one of bin Laden's most trusted aides. The CIA got similar information from Mohammed's successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics inside CIA prisons in Poland and Romania.

Unfortunately for waterboarding advocates, a longer version of the story adds some crucial detail:

Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic. It took years of work for intelligence agencies to identify the courier's real name, which officials are not disclosing.

Despite being waterboarded 183 times in March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not divulge actionable intelligence until at least 2006, withholding the information under torture. KSM revealed it only under the sophisticated non-coercive persuasion favored by professional interrogators. Donald Rumsfeld agrees that there was no waterboarding of the courier source. An ICRC report makes no mention of Abu Faraj al-Libi being waterboarded leading some to assume that he wasn't, and he only corroborated KSM's story after he had been in custody for a year.

Waterboarding advocates claim that coercion is necessary because only extraordinary techniques can produce extraordinary information. The timeline leading to Bin Laden's death tells the opposite story. While all interrogation methods can potentially to produce some information, coercive methods are most effective at producing confessions. Persuasion is most effective at producing information.

(Note to journalists: Several news reports erroneously confuse two different but similarly named prisoners. Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured in November 2001, reported dead by alleged suicide in May 2009. His rendition and torture in Egypt produced false confessions linking Al Qaeda and Iraq. Abu Faraj al-Libbi was the source captured in May 2005 who corroborated the information obtained from KSM.)

Do harsh interrogation techniques work (better than the alternatives)?

Over at HUMINT Matt Semel, Visiting Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, at St. Thomas Aquinas College reviews the new revelations about the Bush Administration's policy on interrogations to see if the claims of waterboarding apologists are supported by the evidence.

Matthew "Mancow" Muller waterboarded to prove it's not torture. "I don't want to say this: absolutely torture." started with the idea that the best way to learn about something is direct experience. Learn what it is and how to do it, then experience it yourself, then discuss whether it does or doesn't fit the legal definition of torture. Recently, Matthew "Mancow" Muller decided to investigate the issue for himself.

"I wanted to prove it wasn't torture," Mancow said. "They cut off our heads, we put water on their face...I got voted to do this but I really thought 'I'm going to laugh this off.' "
Witnesses said Muller thrashed on the table, and even instantly threw the toy cow he was holding as his emergency tool to signify when he wanted the experiment to stop. He only lasted 6 or 7 seconds.

"It is way worse than I thought it would be, and that's no joke,"Mancow said, likening it to a time when he nearly drowned as a child. "It is such an odd feeling to have water poured down your nose with your head back...It was instantaneous...and I don't want to say this: absolutely torture."

Matthew Muller joins Chris Hitchens, Daniel Levin, and other former waterboarding apologists whose firsthand experience changed their mind.

Update 5/29: has a new article by John Cook titled "Mancow's 'Waterboarding' Was Completely Fake" which credits for his mock-interrogator's information. We'd like to set the record straight about what parts of Mr. Muller's waterboarding exercise are and aren't legitimate.

Legal Justification for Waterboarding

The release of Office of Legal Counsel documents offers more than just the first authoritative description of waterboarding procedure. In the memos, OLC lawyers Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury offer the Bush Administration's legal justification for the practice. Specifically, whether waterboarding "would violate the prohibition against torture found at Section 2340A of title 18 of the United States Code", the legal definition. Bybee and Bradbury explain that waterboarding is not an act "specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering" because:

  • p16: Interrogators may claim they don't "specifically intend" to harm prisoners if experts tell them that waterboarding does not cause physical or mental pain or suffering. Experts can tell them this because...
  • p.11: Drowning cannot be described as "physical pain" and therefore does not cause "pain and suffering". (Irrelevant: USC 2340A prohibits "physical or mental pain or suffering".)
  • p.11: "Suffering" only occurs for "a protracted period of time", and the duration of waterboarding is not "protracted" enough.
  • p.17: Military SERE trainees do not experience "negative long-term mental health consequences" during training by fellow military. Therefore real prisoners in real interrogations can't be expected to experience long-term mental health consequences either.
Below the fold is an annotated summary of the opinion of Jay Bybee and the 2002 Office of Legal Counsel. Readers are encouraged to make up their own minds whether their argument is persuasive.

Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann: Waterboarding for Charity

On April 22, Sean Hannity interviewed Charles Grodin. Hannity suggested "is it really so bad to dunk a terrorist's head in water", Grodin suggested that he try it out and see for himself, and Sean Hannity agreed to "do it for charity" this Sunday, March 26th. Last night Keith Olbermann offered Hannity a $1000 per second incentive to be waterboarded for charity.

The best way to quickly and clearly learn about waterboarding is to try it yourself. Direct experiences by former waterboarding apologists assistant AG Daniel Levin and Chris Hitchens are what changed their minds about the practice's severity and acceptability. If Sean Hannity can withstand the same duration of enhanced treatment that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed did - 183 episodes of between 10 and 40 seconds - Sean Hannity will be able to earn between $1.83-$7.32 million for the charity of his choice. We wish him luck.

"Torture Memos: Waterboarding" by Rock Cookie Bottom

Jonathan Mann of Rock Cookie Bottom is writing a song a day. Last Sunday, for song #109 he took the waterboarding instructions from the OLC memos and put them to music.

OLC Memos Define Official Waterboarding Procedure

A recently declassified four memos has shed light on the recently banned practice of waterboarding. For the first time, the memos publicly describe the officially sanctioned waterboarding interrogation procedure:

Jay S. Bybee, August 1 2002, p.3-4:

In this procedure, the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual's feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. As this is done, the cloth is lowered until it covers both the nose and mouth. Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers the mouth and nose, air flow is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds due to the presence of the cloth. This causes an increase in carbon dioxide level in the individual's blood. This increase in the carbon dioxide level stimulates increased effort to breathe. This effort plus the cloth produces the perception of "suffocation and incipient panic," i.e., the perception of drowning. The individual does not breathe any water into his lungs. During those 20 to 40 seconds, water is continuously applied from a height of twelve to twenty-four inches. After this period, the cloth is lifted, and the individual is allowed to breathe unimpeded for three or four full breaths. the sensation of drowning is immediately relieved by the removal of the cloth. The procedure may then be repeated. The water is usually applied from a canteen cup or small watering can with a spout. You have orally informed us that this procedure triggers an automatic physiological sensation of drowning that the individual cannot control even though he may be aware that he is not in fact drowning. You have also orally informed us that it is likely that this procedure would not last more than twenty minutes in any one application.

Steven G Bradbury, May 10 2005, p.13:

13. The "waterboard". In this technique, the detainee is lying on a gurney that is inclined at an angle of 10 to 15 degrees to the horizontal, with the detainee on his back and his head toward the lower end of the gurney. A cloth is placed over the detainee's face and cold water is poured on the cloth from a height of approximately 6 to 8 inches. The wet cloth creates a barrier through which it is difficult - or in some cases not possible - to breathe. A single "application" of water may not last for more than 40 seconds, with the duration of an "application" measured from the moment when water - of whatever quantity - is first poured onto the cloth until the moment the cloth is removed from the subject's face. See August 19 ❚❚❚❚ Letter at 1. When the time limit is reached, the pouring of water is immediately discontinued and the cloth is removed. We understand that if the detainee makes an effort to defeat the technique (e.g. by twisting his head to the side and breathing out of the corner of his mouth), the interrogator may cup his hands around the detainee's nose and mouth to dam the runoff, in which case it would not be possible for a detainee to breathe during the application of the water. In addition, you have informed us that the technique may be applied in a manner to defeat efforts by the detainee to hold his breath by, for example, beginning an application of water as the detainee is exhaling. Either in the normal application, or where countermeasures are used, we understand that water may enter - and may accumulate in - the detainee's mouth and nasal cavity, preventing him from breathing. Either in the normal application, or where countermeasures are used, we understand that water may enter — and may accumulate in — the detainee’s mouth and nasal cavity, preventing him from breathing. In addition, you have indicated that the detainee as a countermeasure may swallow water, possibly in significant quantities. For that reason; based on advice of medical personnel, the C.I.A. requires that saline solution be used instead of plain water to reduce the possibility of hyponatremia (i.e., reduced concentration of sodium in the blood) if the detainee drinks the water.

Note that says "the individual does not breathe any water into his lungs." This is true. The individual breathes water into his mouth, nose, sinuses, larynx, pharynx, and trachea but not the lungs. The lungs are elevated by the inclination of the board to keep them "above the waterline" to prevent the water from actually drowning the individual.

Notes in the second Bradbury memo indicates that the waterboarding technique as actually practiced by CIA interrogators is different from both standard SERE techniques and the technique described in the DOJ opinion. Bradbury's 2005 description of "two sessions, of up to two hours each" significantly surpasses Bybee's 2002 assurances that "it is likely that this procedure would not last more than twenty minutes in any one application":

Steven G Bradbury, May 10 2005, p.42:

In SERE training, the technique is confined to at most two applications (and usually only one) of no more than 40 seconds each. Here, there may be two sessions, of up to two hours each, during a 24-hour period, and each session may include multiple applications, of which six may last 10 seconds or longer (but none more than 40 seconds), for a total time of application of as much as 12 minutes in a 24-hour period. Furthermore, the waterboard may be used up to five days during the 30-day period for which it is approved

Steven G Bradbury, May 10 2005 p.41:

51. The IG Report noted that in some cases the waterboard was used with far greater frequency than initially indicated, see IG Report at 5, 44, 45,103, 104 and also that it was used in a different manner. See id. at 37 (”The waterboard technique was different from the technique described in the DOJ opinion and used in the SERE training. The difference was in the manner in which the detainee’s breathing was obstructed. At the SERE school and in the DoJ opinion, the subject’s airflow is disrupted by by the firm application of a damp cloth over the air passages; the Interrogator applies a small amount of water to the cloth in a controlled manner. By contrast, the Agency interrogator… applies large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee’s mouth and nose. One of the psychologists/interrogators acknowledged that the Agency’s use of the technique is different than that used by in SERE training because it is ‘for real’ and is ‘more poignant and convincing’.”) The Inspector General further reported that "OMS contends that the expertise of the SERE psychologist/interrogators on the waterboard was probably misrepresented at the time, as the SERE waterboard experience is so so different from the subsequent Agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant. [c]onsequently, according to OMS, there was no a priori reason to believe that applying the waterboard with the frequency and intensity with which it was used by the psychologist/interrogators was either efficacious or medically safe.” Id. at 21 n.26.

Bradbury's memo provides guidelines and limits for the duration that waterboarding may be applied:

Steven G Bradbury, May 10 2005 p.8:

You have informed us that the waterboard may be approved for use with a given detainee only during, at most, one single 30-day period, and that during that period, the waterboard technique may be used on no more than five days. We further understand that in any 24-hour period, interrogators may use no more than two "sessions" of the waterboard on the subject - and that no session may last more than two hours. Moreover, during any session, the number of individual applications of water lasting 10 seconds or longer may not exceed six. The maximum length of any application of water is 40 seconds (you have informed us that this maximum has rarely been reached). Finally the total cumulative time of all applications of whatever length in a 24-hour period may not exceed 12 minutes.

[W]here authorized, it may be used for two “sessions” per day of up to two hours. During a session, water may be applied up to six times for ten seconds or longer (but never more than 40 seconds). In a 24-hour period, a detainee may be subjected to up to twelve minutes of water application. Additionally, the waterboard may be used on as many as five days during a 30-day approval period.

The CIA's procedure violated these guidelines by waterboarding Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed more frequently than even their own procedure allowed:

Steven G Bradbury, May 30 2005 p.37:

The CIA used the waterboard "at least 83 times during August 2002" in the interrogation of Zubaydah, IG Report at 90, and 183 times during March 2003 in the interrogation of KSM, see id. at 91. on 710 KURV

This morning U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ruled out waterboarding as an interrogation technique for terrorism suspects, saying "Waterboarding is torture. My Justice Department will not justify it, will not rationalize it and will not condone it." just completed a brief taped phone interview for "The Daily Report" with US Army Colonel Ray Coughenour, covering this news on News Talk 710 KURV, McAllen, Texas. It will be broadcast today at around 5pm CST today. Non-local listeners can listen to the streaming broadcast via the internet on their website.

Barack Obama Ends Waterboarding (and Other Imprisonment and Coercive Interrogation Practices)

While most people seemed to be talking about closing Guantanamo, another executive order today made big changes to the interrogation practices permitted not just in Guantanamo but to all American officers and agents worldwide. Today's executive order ensuring lawful interrogations:

  • Requires all interrogation practices of anyone in the custody of any American official to conform to Army Field Manual 2 22.3.
  • Defines words like "torture" and "humiliating and degrading treatment" to mean exactly what the Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions say those words mean.
  • Closes all CIA black sites.
  • Guarantees ICRC access to all prisoners as required by the Geneva Conventions.
  • Creates a Special Interagency Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies to determine how or whether the practice of extraordinary rendition can continue.

More detail and excerpts below the cut...

John McCain: For Torture Before He Was Against It

In last night's debate, John McCain said:

...we have a long way to go in our intelligence services. We have to do a better job in human intelligence. And we've got to -- to make sure that we have people who are trained interrogators so that we don't ever torture a prisoner ever again.

In a letter to constituents on October 18, 2006 he said:

... techniques such as waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation, and stress positions that cause serious pain and suffering will not be acceptable forms of interrogation.

McCain's public statements stand in stark contrast with his legislative actions.