If It Amounts to Torture

The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

If It Amounts to Torture


In March 2007, the US Defense Department released the transcript of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's testimony before a secret tribunal at Guantanamo. According to the text, Mohammed admitted, "I was responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z." He also confessed to planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Richard Reid's failed shoe bombing; the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings; and the horrific murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The confession was presented as a victory for the intelligence community and a conclusion to many longstanding investigations.

But there were troubling inconsistencies. Special Agent Randall Bennett, former head of security for the US consulate in Karachi, told the New Yorker that he had personally interviewed all of the convicted accomplices in the Daniel Pearl case and Mohammed's name "never came up." Just as troubling, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was plotted and carried out by Mohammed's nephew Ramzi Yousef-a fact which may have granted him access to inside information-but there is no evidence to suggest that Mohammed was involved. So why would he admit to crimes he hadn't committed?

One possible answer: as early as 2004, the Washington Post reported, "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subject to 'water boarding.'" The technique involves strapping a person to a table, covering his mouth and nose with a cloth, and pouring water over the cloth, until the subject begins to inhale water and drown. There's nothing new about this method. It dates back at least as far as the Spanish inquisition-when it was known simply as tortura del agua. It was used by Dutch traders in the seventeenth century in the East Indies and was finally banned by most Western countries during the Enlightenment.

In this country, Major Edwin Glenn was court-martialed and sentenced to ten years hard labor in 1901 for water boarding a prisoner in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. The US officially outlawed the practice after World War II, because it had been used against Allied troops by the Gestapo and the Japanese Kempeitai. Indeed, eight Kempeitai officers were executed for water boarding British prisoners, and Japanese officer Yukio Asano was convicted by an Allied court of war crimes in 1947 for, among other things, water boarding John Henry Burton, a US civilian.

"Asano was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor," Senator Edward Kennedy said recently on the Senate floor. Nevertheless, Alberto Gonzales, just days after his confirmation as attorney general in February 2005, issued secret authorization to CIA Director George Tenet to employ "enhanced interrogation techniques," including water boarding.

When Scott Pelley raised the issue with Tenet on 60 Minutes in May 2007, he replied, "We don't torture people. Let me say that again to you, we don't torture people. Okay?"

"Come on, George," Pelley said. "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?"

"We don't torture people," he insisted.

"Water boarding?"

"We do not-" Here Tenet stopped short, "I don't talk about techniques."

So it was that last October, under the glaring lights of his Senate confirmation hearing, Michael B. Mukasey, President Bush's nominee to replace Gonzales as attorney general, waited, blinking, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, rephrased his question as clearly as possible: "Do you have an opinion on whether water boarding, which is the practice of putting somebody in a reclining position, strapping them done, putting cloth over their faces and pouring water over the cloth to simulate the feeling of drowning-is that constitutional?"

"If it amounts to torture," Mukasey replied, "it is not constitutional."

If- as if any question persisted. John McCain, who should know, has been clear that water boarding is torture, telling the New York Times: "All I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today. …

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