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Waterboarding is a form of torture in which water is poured over cloth covering the face and breathing passages of an immobilized captive, causing the individual to experience the sensation of drowning. Waterboarding can cause extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, other physical injuries including broken bones due to struggling against restraints, lasting psychological damage, and death.[1] Adverse physical consequences can manifest themselves months after the event, while psychological effects can last for years.[2] The term water board torture appears in press reports as early as 1976.[3] The captive's face is usually covered with cloth or some other thin material, and the subject is immobilized on his/her back. Interrogators pour water onto the face over the breathing passages, causing an almost immediate gag reflex and creating the sensation for the captive that he is drowning.[4][5][6]
In the fall of 2007, it was widely reported that the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was using waterboarding on extrajudicial prisoners and that the Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Justice had authorized the procedure among enhanced interrogation techniques.[7][8] Senator John McCain noted that in World War II, the United States military hanged Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American prisoners of war.[9] The CIA confirmed having used waterboarding on three Al-Qaeda suspects: Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, in 2002 and 2003.[10][11]
In its war on terror, the Bush administration through Jay S. Bybee, the Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Justice, issued in August 2002 and March 2003 what became known in 2004, after being leaked, as the Torture Memos.[12] These legal opinions (including the 2002 Bybee memo) argued for a narrow definition of torture under U.S. law. The first three were addressed to the CIA, which took them as authority to use the described enhanced interrogation techniques (more generally classified as torture) on detainees classified as enemy combatants. In March 2003, John Yoo, the acting Office of Legal Counsel, issued a fourth memo to the General Counsel of DOD, concluding his legal opinion by saying that federal laws related to torture and other abuse did not apply to interrogations overseas, five days before the March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The legal opinions were withdrawn by Jack Goldsmith of the OLC in June 2004 but reaffirmed by the succeeding head of the OLC in December 2004.[13][14] During the presidency of George W. Bush, U.S. government officials at various times said they did not believe waterboarding to be a form of torture.[15][16][17][18]
In January 2009, with a change in administrations, U.S. President Barack Obama banned the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture in interrogations of detainees. In April 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense refused to say whether waterboarding is still used for training (e.g. SERE) U.S. military personnel in resistance to interrogation.[19][20
Waterboarding was characterized in 2005 by former CIA director Porter J. Goss as a "professional interrogation technique."[21] According to press accounts, a cloth or plastic wrap is placed over or in the person's mouth, and water is poured on to the person's head. Press accounts differ on the details of this technique – one article describes "dripping water into a wet cloth over a suspect's face,"[22] while another states that "cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him."[6]
The United States' Office of Legal Counsel in August 2002 responded to the request by the CIA for a legal opinion regarding the use of certain interrogation techniques. It included the following counted the CIA's definition of waterboarding in a Top Secret 2002 memorandum as follows:
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... 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 procedure may then be repeated. The water is usually applied from a canteen cup or small watering can with a spout... You have... informed us that it is likely that this procedure would not last more than twenty minutes in any one application.[23]
Historically in the West, the technique is known to have been used in the Spanish Inquisition. The suffocation of bound prisoners with water has been favored because, unlike most other torture techniques, it produces no marks on the body.[24] CIA officers who have subjected themselves to the technique have lasted an average of 14 seconds before capitulating.[6] According to at least one former CIA official, information retrieved from the waterboarding may not be reliable because a person under such duress may admit to anything, as harsh interrogation techniques lead to false confessions. "The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," says John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.[6] It is "bad interrogation. I mean you can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture's bad enough," said former CIA officer Bob Baer.[6] There was considerable dissension within the Bush administration over the use of these techniques; both military investigators and the FBI opposed them.
Mental and physical effects
Dr. Allen Keller, the director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, has treated "a number of people" who had been subjected to forms of near-asphyxiation, including waterboarding. In an interview for The New Yorker, he argued that "it was indeed torture. 'Some victims were still traumatized years later', he said. One patient couldn't take showers, and panicked when it rained. 'The fear of being killed is a terrifying experience', he said".[2] Keller also gave a full description in 2007 in testimony before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the practice:[29]
The CIA's Office of Medical Services noted in a 2003 memo that "for reasons of physical fatigue or psychological resignation, the subject may simply give up, allowing excessive filling of the airways and loss of consciousness".[30]
In an open letter in 2007 to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Human Rights Watch asserted that waterboarding can cause the sort of "severe pain" prohibited by 18 USC 2340 (the implementation in the United States of the United Nations Convention Against Torture), that the psychological effects can last long after waterboarding ends (another of the criteria under 18 USC 2340), and that uninterrupted waterboarding can ultimately cause death.[1]


While the technique has been used in various forms for centuries, the term water board was recorded first in a 1976 UPI report: "A Navy spokesman admitted use of the ‘water board’ torture . . . to ‘convince each trainee that he won’t be able to physically resist what an enemy would do to him.’” The verb-noun waterboarding dates from 2004.[3] First appearance of the term in the mass media was in a New York Times article on 13 May 2004:
In the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a high-level detainee who is believed to have helped plan the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, C.I.A. interrogators used graduated levels of force, including a technique known as 'water boarding', in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown.[3][31][32]
The U.S. attorney Alan Dershowitz is reported to have shortened the term to a single word in a Boston Globe article two days later: "After all, the administration did approve rough interrogation methods for some high valued detainees. These included waterboarding, in which a detainee is pushed under water and made to believe he will drown unless he provides information, as well as sensory deprivation, painful stress positions, and simulated dog attacks".[33] Dershowitz later told the New York Times columnist William Safire that, "when I first used the word, nobody knew what it meant."[3]
Techniques using forcible drowning to extract information had hitherto been referred to as "water torture," "water treatment," "water cure" or simply "torture."[3][32]
Professor Darius Rejali of Reed College, author of Torture and Democracy (2007), speculates that the term waterboarding probably has its origin in the need for a euphemism.
"There is a special vocabulary for torture. When people use tortures that are old, they rename them and alter them a wee bit. They invent slightly new words to mask the similarities. This creates an inside club, especially important in work where secrecy matters. Waterboarding is clearly a jailhouse joke. It refers to surfboarding"– a word found as early as 1929– "they are attaching somebody to a board and helping them surf. Torturers create names that are funny to them."[3]
Webster's Dictionary first included the term in 2009: "[A]n interrogation technique in which water is forced into a detainee's mouth and nose so as to induce the sensation of drowning."[34]

Classification as torture

Waterboarding is considered to be torture by a wide range of authorities, including legal experts,[1][35][36] politicians, war veterans,[37][38] intelligence officials,[39] military judges,[40] and human rights organizations.[21][41] David Miliband, then United Kingdom Foreign Secretary, described it as torture on 19 July 2008, and stated "the UK unreservedly condemns the use of torture."[42] Arguments have been put forward that it might not be torture in all cases, or that it is unclear.[18][43][44][45] The U.S. State Department has recognized "submersion of the head in water" as torture in other circumstances, for example, in its 2005 Country Report on Tunisia.[46]
The United Nations' Report of the Committee Against Torture: Thirty-fifth Session of November 2006, stated that state parties should rescind any interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, that constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.[47]
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