Thursday, November 01, 2007

IS THIS THE HILL TO DIE ON?

Is it OK to use a technique commonly known as waterboarding to extract information from our enemies? Is it torture, which the President has said is illegal?

Before you can answer the question is it OK to use waterboarding you really should have a sense of what it is. Having undergone the procedure during a very realistic training session I can speak from the point of view of having been on the receiving end. I have never been in a position to inflict it on others but was able to watch the videotape of myself being waterboarded, which also allowed me to study the trainers conducting the session.

After being asked several questions regarding my unit and about operational information my interrogators told me exactly what they were going to do to me and then proceeded to do it. Very simply, you are strapped to a chair or long board and reclined to a point where your lower body is elevated above your upper body. A cloth is put across your nose and mouth area but your eyes aren’t covered so you can see what’s coming. My interrogators (whose faces were covered and remain anonymous to me) gave me a final chance to agree to talk and then began to pour a large amount of water over my face. Initially I tried to tell myself to hold my breath, relax and think through it. That worked for about 20 seconds or so when my mind began to question this logic and started to say this is out of hand, the exercise is out of hand, this is real and then my brain began to complain that I needed air while gallons of water seemed to be poring into my lungs through my nose which caused my gag reflex to be overwhelmed, which in turn cause me to gulp hoping for air but only getting more water. The first session lasted about 60 seconds according to the tape but it certainly felt like a lot longer to me.

After the first session as I was gasping and spitting up water and feeling dizzy the questions rained down on me and the threats to repeat the procedure until I drowned began. I resisted fully twice more but after the third session and question period I broke and began to talk about everything I knew. I had lasted until the chair I was in began to tilt back for the forth time. I was sure I couldn’t survive another session (each session was progressively longer) with the amount of water I’d already taken in and decided I wasn’t going to die like this.

What I didn’t know was three sessions are the limit for training and there’s a doctor monitoring the event judging your level of hypoxia and your reaction to the training session so when I broke I was at the end of the pain but just didn’t know it. A CIA interrogator does the individual debriefing (nobody in our training class knew who broke or when and under what circumstances to avoid any long term mental effects on the trainees) and told me that my reaction had been normal. Most people last two to three sessions and then sing for all they’re worth. It’s a combination of fear of what might happen, known as fear of impending doom and the hypoxia that causes you to believe you’re in more eminent danger than you really are. In fact he told me one very hard member of Al Qaeda lasted seven sessions before breaking and even then he only partially broke but after a two day break to allow his body to recover it only took being strapped onto the board to completely break him. During those two days his mind had begun to fear the process now that he knew what was coming more than he feared what would happen to him if his fellow Al Qaeda members knew he’d passed along vital information.

So know that you know what waterboarding is, hopefully you can decide if it’s torture or just an extreme technique using physical discomfort and fear of impending doom to quickly trick a victim into telling his interrogators what they need to know to help take down other terrorist cells and leaders.

I don’t believe it falls under the definition of to torture (verb), which is according to Webster’s Dictionary: to cause intense suffering to//to punish or coerce by inflicting excruciating pain//to twist or wrench out of shape but Malcolm Nance (a SERE school instructor) who wrote a very good article on the subject and has both undergone and inflicted waterboarding on trainees believes it is, although I think his decision is based not on having been waterboarded but because he’s inflicted it. During the first review of my sessions I focused mainly on myself trying to piece together what I’d felt and what I was seeing, but during the second review I was able to also observe my interrogators who seemed to be almost in as much discomfort as I was. They certainly weren’t enjoying what they were doing and I noticed that different people had conducted the third session.

My de-briefer said one of the biggest problems they were having was finding people who could mentally handle doing this during training to their fellow citizens and they had to be changed out frequently to avoid becoming ineffective thus ruining the training goals. With this in mind, I believe it’s very possible that Mr. Nance simply sees this from the perspective of the pain he’s caused his fellow countrymen and not from the perspective of using the technique operationally against our enemies.

Mr. Nance also contends that by conducting this type of interrogation we validate our enemy’s torture of our own soldiers. Senator John McCain who was tortured during his imprisonment during the Vietnam War also believes waterboarding is torture. These are two impressive individuals and the reader should carefully weigh their words along with mine.

I believe that regardless of what techniques we use or don’t use to assist our interrogators in gathering information, our enemies, especially Al Queda or the Taliban will continue to use physical torture not as a means to just gather information meaning that once you break the pain ends, a la Gitmo, but as a means simply to humiliate, cause extreme pain, permanently disfigure and for personal amusement prior to killing. We only lose the moral high ground if torture becomes the norm and is used for pleasure and continues after the prisoner has provided the information sought. US interrogators use a technique that doesn’t do any permanent physical harm on a very few high-end prisoners for a brief period of time with a specific goal in mind. They have a doctor standing by monitoring all interrogations to ensure nothing gets out of hand and sufficient breaks are built into the interrogation plan to allow not only physical recovery but to assist with mental breakdown. Once the information sought has been garnered the technique ends and rewards are provided, which begins the milking phase so commonly talked about in the MSM by pundits who say this is the only true way to gather reliable information.

While I agree that a long-term strategy based on developing a relationship with the detainee is required to gather information and cross check the information gathered from others there is also a requirement in emergency situations whereby information is required as quickly as possible. I can tell you from my perspective that when I broke I did so with the truth, before my brain realized what I was doing the truth poured out of me almost as quickly as the water had poured in, for you see the hypoxia had also done its job in breaking down the barriers to resisting similar to intoxication. Later as the oxygen levels in my brain returned to normal I tried to back track and confuse my interrogators but it was too late. It should also be noted that there is no permanent damage associated with the lowering of oxygen levels in the brain for brief periods of time, similar to that experienced by mountain climbers who, when they return to lower levels completely recover.

While all this may seem repugnant as the nominated AG, Michael Mukasey's said yesterday it is a critical technique for interrogators as it works every time, causes no permanent damage if used correctly by professionals and works quickly which is critical in gathering information before other operational cells realize the senior Al Qaeda member has been captured.

When I asked my de-briefer how often this has been used operationally he initially refused to say exactly how many, when I asked for a general assessment I was told, more than once less than two dozen times. He also noted that the technique had never failed to be successful. You should know this man certainly wasn’t trying to impress, scare or deceive me he was deadpan and genuine. It would appear that more American citizens are waterboarded each month than enemy combatants ever.

War in itself is a horrible event but if we demand a safe homeland from a brutal and fanatical enemy then waterboarding is certainly not the hill of principles you want to die on but it appears our high and mighty Congress just may do so by taking another valuable tool away from those who are desperately trying to ensure that another 9/11 type attack never occurs again.

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