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Waterboarding: Is it torture and does it work?

Interrogation methods may be essential to the survival of Americans

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Nov. 9: Malcolm Nance, a former Navy interrogation instructor, speaks with 'Countdown' guest host Alison Stewart about Attorney General Michael Mukasey's confirmation and torture tactics.
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Oct. 31: Attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey is coming under even more fire because he won’t say waterboarding is torture. In the ‘Lion’s Den’ tonight, Dan Abrams goes one-on-one with Cliff May about Mukasey’s stance.

Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

There is an ongoing debate about CIA use of the interrogation technique known as “waterboarding” and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Waterboarding simulates drowning though forced inhalation of water into the lungs and nasal passages.  Many believe this, or any form of physical coercion, amounts to torture.

Some of the enhanced techniques in question are sleep deprivation, sensory manipulation, isolation, open-handed blows and, of course, waterboarding.  While undergoing training for intelligence operations, many officers in the armed forces intelligence services and the CIA were subjected to these techniques, albeit in a controlled training environment.  Why?  Because in almost every conflict in which the United States has been involved, our military personnel have been subjected to these interrogation methods.

The argument that use of aggressive interrogation techniques by CIA interrogators will place our military personnel at greater risk in the future should they be captured does not stand up to scrutiny.  American prisoners of war have never been treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions – the only countries that adhere to the protocols seem to be the United States and its allies.  In virtually every conflict, our captured personnel have been brutally treated and abused.

Do these enhanced techniques rise to the level of torture?  This becomes a matter of semantics and interpretation.  After Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government defined as torture methods that cause “permanent physical harm or severe pain.”  In August 2002, the Justice Department defined “severe torture” as “a high level of intensity that the pain is difficult for the subject to endure.”

Using this standard, none of the above techniques is considered to be torture.  That, however, does not make them acceptable under various international protocols.  For example, some human rights organizations consider even blindfolding and handcuffing to be torture, as well as isolation and sleep deprivation.

Many, including Sen. John McCain and my colleague Bob Baer, believe that torture does not work.  In most instances, it does not.  Certainly, the preferred method and the most effective method  is to establish some sort of relationship with a prisoner and convince him or her to talk to you.  Many intelligence services have very effective strategic interrogation programs.  The key word here is strategic and it takes time for that relationship between interrogator and subject to develop.

Time is not always available.  In these instances, when it is believed that the subject has vital information on impending events that put your unit, organization, citizens or country at risk, it is imperative to obtain the information as quickly as possible.  This is when enhanced or aggressive techniques may become necessary and should be considered as a tool to save lives.

When you employ these techniques, as pointed out by McCain and Baer, the risk that the subject will tell you whatever he thinks will stop the interrogation.  The argument is that this information, obtained under physical or mental duress, is unreliable.  That can be true, and the reason why these techniques must be used only by properly trained personnel in specific circumstances.  It is also imperative that the obtained information must be verifiable or corroborated through independent information.

In most cases, that means you must have more than one source or more than one subject.  Constant corroboration between various sources or subjects will eventually lead to the truth.  You play one source against the other and soon you arrive at an accurate understanding of the information they have. According to former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and CIA operations Officer Michael Scheuer, enhanced interrogation was effective in obtaining useful information.

Use of these enhanced techniques is the sole domain of specially trained CIA officers, following extensive legal reviews.  Military personnel are specifically forbidden from using them.  Army Field Manual 2-22.3, Human Intelligence Collector Operations (September 2006) details exactly what DOD and military interrogators can do: It is now the Department of Defense’s standard guide to interrogations.

This may be a moot discussion.  Congress is considering a bill that would force all government agencies to adhere to the interrogation guidelines in the Army manual.  Enacting such legislation would eliminate the water boarding option for any future high-value detainees, regardless of the threat posed to the country.

While I am not advocating the use of these techniques, I would caution outlawing them.  There may be a time when the need to obtain information is essential to the survival of hundreds, possibly thousands of Americans.

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