In his speech on the Senate floor last week dismissing the role of enhanced interrogations in the operation that got Osama bin Laden, Sen. John McCain declared that waterboarding is “indisputably torture.” His claim has indeed been disputed — by several of McCain’s fellow prisoners of war. McCain served our nation with courage and honor in Vietnam. But some of those who served beside him, and experienced horrific torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, vehemently disagree with his assertion that waterboarding, as practiced by the CIA, even remotely constitutes torture.
When I was researching my book, “Courting Disaster,” I interviewed many of them, including Col. Bud Day, who received our nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for his heroic escape from a North Vietnamese prison camp. When Day was returned to the prison, his right arm was broken in three places and he had been shot in the hand and thigh during his capture. But he continued to resist interrogation and provide false information — suffering such excruciating torture that he became totally physically debilitated and unable to perform even the simplest task for himself. In short, Day is an expert on the subject of torture. Here is what he says about CIA waterboarding:
“I am a supporter of waterboarding. It is not torture. Torture is really hurting someone. Waterboarding is just scaring someone, with no long-term injurious effects. It is a scare tactic that works.”
I asked Day in an e-mail what he would say to the CIA officer who waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed, if he had the chance to speak with him. Day replied immediately: “YOU DID THE RIGHT THING.”
Like Day, Col. Leo Thorsness was awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism during the Vietnam War. He experienced excruciating torture during his captivity — his back broken, his body wrenched apart. He says what the CIA did to al-Qaeda terrorists in its custody was not torture:
“To me, waterboarding is intensive interrogation. It is not torture. Torture involves extreme, brutal pain — breaking bones, passing out from pain, beatings so severe that blood spatters the walls . . . when you pop shoulders out of joints.. . . In my mind, there’s a difference, and in most POWs’ minds there’s a difference.. . . I would not hesitate a second to use ‘enhanced interrogation,’ including waterboarding, if it would save the lives of innocent people.”
Another torture victim who supports waterboarding is Adm. Jeremiah Denton — the POW who famously winked the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code during a North Vietnamese propaganda interview. It was the first message to the outside world that American prisoners were being tortured. Denton later received the Navy Cross for this courageous and costly act of defiance, for which he paid dearly when his captors figured out what he had done. I asked Denton if he thought waterboarding was torture. He told me:
“No, I think it’s persuasive.. . . The big, monstrous difference here is that the gentlemen we are waterboarding are people who swore to kill Americans. They will wreak any kind of torture just for the hell of it on anybody. When they are captured by the U.S., and we know or have reason to believe that they know of a subsequent event after 9/11, if you don’t interrogate them, more misery will take place.. . . Waterboarding is not an evil. Some of the things they did to us were torture. I passed out a dozen times from torture. We’re not exerting that kind of excruciation.”
John McCain is a hero, and he certainly has the moral authority to speak his mind on this topic. But he cannot claim that this position is “indisputable.” Many of his fellow POWs — including many who suffered horrifying torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese — believe that waterboarding is not torture. They believe that the CIA officers who interrogated our enemies deserve our thanks, not the calumnies that are hurled against them. These men know more about torture than all of the CIA’s critics combined — and they say unequivocally that what the CIA did was not torture.