CATEGORY: WarSecurity

Who’s degraded more — the torture victim or the torturer?

Exactly what is waterboarding a prisoner 83 — or 183 — times supposed to accomplish?

We recently posted about the railroading of former CIA offer John Kiriakou on flimsy charges of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. In the course of his article about the case — in which he himself was a protagonist — Scott Shane of the New York Times writes that Kiriakou

… led the team in 2002 that found Abu Zubaydah. … While he had spent hours with Abu Zubaydah after the capture, he had not been present when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, a fact he made clear to me and some other interviewers. But based on what he had heard and read at the agency, he told ABC and other news organizations that Abu Zubaydah had stopped resisting after just 30 or 35 seconds of the suffocating procedure and told interrogators all he knew.

In fact

… the prisoner was waterboarded some 83 times, it turned out. Mr. Kiriakou believes that he and other C.I.A. officers were deliberately misled by other agency officers who knew the truth.

Meanwhile, in 2009, at Empty Wheel, Marcy Wheeler wrote: “According to the May 30, 2005 Bradbury memo” — the same memo that revealed how many times Abu Zubaydah had been tortured — “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003.”

Eighty-three times? 183 times? To begin with, there’s something insidious about the neat difference of 100 in the number of tortures meted out. Other, more tangible, questions come to mind. Before moving on to the humanistic, what about the sheer logistics? Ms. Wheeler cited a memo that explained

… how the CIA might manage to waterboard these men so many times in one month. …where 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.

So: two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each = 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you’d need 18 applications in a day. Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you’ve waterboarded 90 times–still just half of what they did to KSM.

Next, one wonders why the victim — much as one resists casting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in this light of a victim, can there be any doubt that our “enhanced interrogation” practices has turned him into a victim, too? — doesn’t die from the relentless assault on his body? Of course, a doctor is present to make sure he lives to be tortured another day. But how many brain cells does near-asphyxiation kill?

Also, even though interrogators were presumably vetted to weed out psychopaths, if the practice alone doesn’t suggest unbridled sadism at work, the repetition does. In — facetiousness alert! — fairness, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed may have been extraordinarily tough as well as holding out for concessions of some sort — better conditions in jail, treatment of their families.

Or the repetition may have been a measure of the interrogator’s frustration with the perceived inadequacy of the tools of torture with which he’d been supplied: “They call this waterboarding and all we’re allowed to use is a common water bottle? Let me dunk his entire head in a tub and I’ll get answers after his first immersion.”

Perhaps, too, the more they tortured, the more they hated themselves and took out their anger on their subjects.

In any event, as Ms. Wheeler wrote:

The CIA wants you to believe waterboarding is effective. Yet somehow, it took them 183 applications of the waterboard in a one month period to get what they claimed was cooperation out of KSM.

That doesn’t sound very effective to me.

In the end — and while torture by American citizens may have ended, we may still be outsourcing the practice — the sessions described above certainly fulfilled all the requirements for the frequently cited definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over, ad nauseam). The torturer and the government that empowers him inevitably wind up as degraded as those tortured.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.