How Waterboarding Got Out of Control

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According to memos by the Office of Legal Counsel, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times.

For years, the Bush Administration defended its harsh interrogation methods against accusations of torture by portraying them as a measured intelligence gathering tool that wouldn't be allowed to get out of hand. But with the release of the Justice Department interrogation memos ordered by President Obama last week, it has become clear that the use of waterboarding seemed to occasionally get out of control.

In sometimes graphic detail, the memos issued by the department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) reveal how the key conditions laid-down by the Administration were not always adhered to. Those guidelines were that the techniques were supposed to mimic the mock-torture of service personnel in an U.S. Army training program, they were to be used as a "controlled acute episode," and they were not to be used "with substantial repetition." (See pictures from inside Guantanamo Bay's detention facilities.)

One of the OLC memos, dated May 30, 2005, quotes an internal investigation by the CIA inspector general (IG), revealing that two detainees were waterboarded on scores of occasions in the space of a single month. In August 2002, Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner put through the CIA's overseas detention program, was waterboarded at least 83 times; and in March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times. (These numbers were redacted in one version of the released memos, but were noticed in a separate version by Marcy Wheeler of the blog emptywheel.)

Those numbers certainly appear to go against the tenor of what the agency had told the OLC when it sought a legal opinion on the use of waterboarding. An Aug 1, 2002, memo by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee says the CIA had "indicated that these acts will not be used with substantial repetition, so that there is no possibility that severe physical pain could arise from such repetition. Accordingly, we conclude that these acts neither separately nor as part of a course of conduct would inflict severe physical pain or suffering with the meaning of the statute." (Read "Bush Torture Memo Approved Use of Insects in Interrogations.")

By 2005 — long after Abu Zubaydah and Mohammed had been subjected to the method that the Obama Administration regards as a form of turture — the Agency was giving the OLC a clearer picture. According to two OLC memos in May of that year by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury, the Agency had informed the lawyers the waterboarding technique was being used on a detainee on a maximum of five days during a single 30-day period. On each day, there could only be two "sessions," in which the detainee was strapped to an inclined bench, a cloth placed over his nose and mouth, and water poured over the cloth — to induce a sense of drowning. In each "session," there could be no more than six applications of water to the cloth lasting 10 seconds or longer. No session was to exceed 40 seconds. (See pictures of the aftermath of Abu Ghraib revelations.)

The Agency also seems to have told the OLC that the waterboarding technique was routinely used by the U.S. military to train thousands of service personnel in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) — and that those who went through the training had not suffered any lasting physical or mental health effects. In the 2002 memo, Bybee notes the CIA's assurance that "a medical expert with SERE experience will be present" when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, to prevent severe mental or physical harm. However, the IG investigation found that the waterboarding technique used on the CIA's detainees was significantly different from that used in the SERE program: most notably, the Agency's interrogators used much larger volumes of water.

The IG also cites the CIA's Office of Medical Services (OMS) in saying that the "the expertise of the SERE psychologists/interrogators ... was probably misrepresented." The IG concluded: "Consequently, 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 ... was either efficacious or medically safe." In fact, the IG report also hints that the CIA didn't consult the OMS on waterboarding until quite late: "OMS was neither consulted nor involved in the initial analysis of the risk and benefits of [enhanced interrogation techniques]."

Read "Why Obama Needs to Reveal Even More on Torture."

Read "Report Shows Torture Is Widespread in Iraq."