Fine Print: U.S. can’t seem to shake the ‘water cure’ as a method of interrogation

Walter Pincus
Reporter May 1

“He is simply held down and then water is poured onto his face down his throat and nose from a jar; and that is kept up until the man gives some sign or becomes unconscious. And then . . . he is simply . . . rolled aside rudely, so that water is expelled. A man suffers tremendously, there is no doubt about it,” according to testimony given to the Senate committee.

That sounds as if it could be an excerpt from the classified Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s post-9/11 capture, detention and interrogation programs that included waterboarding.

In a March 11 floor speech, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said the panel is investigating “the horrible details of a CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.”

But that quote was from testimony delivered in 1903 by U.S. Army Lt. Grover Flint before the Senate Philippines Committee. Chaired by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), the committee was reviewing how U.S. Army units were dealing with Filipino fighters who opposed the United States taking over governing their country in the wake of the Spanish-American War.

Sorry, folks, but it’s time to recall George Santayana’s remark in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The Lodge panel dealt in part with allegations that U.S. troops and Filipino units working with them since 1900 had used that era’s version of waterboarding and other tortuous methods against the rebels.

The committee was dominated by Republican senators who supported the harsh tactics, which included the so-called water cure, an interrogation technique used to gather what was considered necessary information. Even President Theodore Roosevelt said at the time that “the water cure is an old Filipino method of mild torture. Nobody was seriously damaged whereas the Filipinos had inflicted incredible tortures on our people.”

It recalls the way former president George W. Bush put it in “Decision Points,” his 2010 book. “Waterboarding [is] a process of simulated drowning. No doubt the procedure was tough, but medical experts assured the CIA that it did no lasting harm,” he wrote.

In 1902, federal Judge William Howard Taft, appointed by Roosevelt to head the Philippine Commission to help establish a postwar government in Manila, was asked about the use of the “water cure” by the Lodge panel.

Taft said, “There have been in individual instances of water cure, that torture which I believe involves pouring water down the throat so that the man swells and gets the impression that he is going to be suffocated and then tells what he knows, which was a frequent treatment under the Spaniards, I am told.”

And while there were some cases in which U.S. military personnel faced investigations and courts-martial, Secretary of War Elihu Root sent the committee a report in 1902 that said, in part, “charges in the public press of cruelty and oppression exercised by our soldiers towards natives of the Philippines” had been either “unfounded or grossly exaggerated.”

Col. S.W. Groesbeck, once judge advocate general of the Philippines, said publicly, “I believe the water cure, as practiced by the American army in the Philippines, to be the most humane method of obtaining information from prisoners of war that is known to modern warfare.”

Coercive interrogation methods, to include forms of waterboarding, have been a continuing problem for Americans, their government ,and U.S. military and intelligence services.

Perhaps it shouldn’t keep happening, but waterboarding does reappear when circumstances arise that seem to justify — if not demand — such actions.

The Washington Post on Jan. 21, 1968, ran a front-page photo of a U.S. soldier supervising the waterboarding of a captured North Vietnamese soldier. The caption says the technique induced “a flooding sense of suffocation and drowning, meant to make him talk.” Because of the photo, the U.S. Army initiated an investigation and the soldier was court-martialed and convicted of torturing a prisoner.

The CIA had a training manual, “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation — July 1963,” whose title was the code word used for the agency in Vietnam. It was used to train new interrogators and described its contents as “basic information about coercive techniques available for use in the interrogation situation.”

These included forcing detainees to stand or sit in “stress positions,” cutting off sources of light, and disrupting their sleep and their diet. Among the manual’s conclusions: The threat of pain is a far more effective interrogation tool than actually inflicting pain, but threats of death do not help.

Given this history, it should not have surprised anyone that in the fear that permeated the country post-9/11, that those responsible for protecting the nation would employ whatever techniques necessary to prevent another attack.

Torture-like interrogations were used in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo, not just by the CIA but also by the military. No one in the White House or on Capitol Hill, informed of what was going in those first years after 9/11, raised public objections.

In her March speech, Feinstein said that if her committee’s report is declassified, “we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”

That’s easy to say but, it seems, much harder to do.

While serving in the Army Counterintelligence Corps 58 years ago, I was trained as an interrogator. My training emphasized developing a rapport with a subject over time to help get needed information.

But in a battlefield situation or facing the possibility of an imminent terrorist attack, I honestly can’t say what I would do.

It’s under such horrible circumstances — perhaps in the immediate aftermath of a biological weapons attack or dirty nuclear bomb — that presidents and lawmakers will find their positions truly tested.

As will we all.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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