Tom Ricks's Inbox

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Here retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, a veteran military intelligence officer, writes to a friend to explain why he opposes the practice of waterboarding, even though many Americans appear to endorse its use in interrogations of suspected terrorists:

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Here is my take on your specific question concerning why some out there think it (waterboarding) works, and what might you be missing. In the interests of disclosure, I have seen waterboarding attempted in a hostile environment once, against a 19 year old rural woman who had the misfortune to live in an area regularly frequented at night by Viet Cong units. With her entire family wailing in the courtyard of their straw home, she writhed on the ground, trying to throw off the four men who had her pinned down with a poncho over her face while the team leader poured water onto the poncho. She told the PRU who were doing it nothing, insisting she did not know, and appeared close to death before they stopped. It could not be determined whether she knew nothing, or was just willing to die rather than provide the nightly visiting schedule of the local VC cadre.

I told both the PRU leader and his Agency advisor that I would not accompany them again if they were going to treat villagers in this manner. It is inconceivable to me that anyone who has ever witnessed this tactic would not consider it torture. I also think the debate about whether a given harsh interrogation practice is technically "torture" or merely a "coercive interrogation technique" is the kind of hair splitting, legalistic smokescreen argument that folks love to toss out these days.

Now to the issue: There is a consituency of frustrated Americans, in and out of government, who want to believe that waterboarding or the like works. They want to get even with the enemy; to avenge the losses of 9-11; and obtain information to prevent a repeat. Or they want to eliminate the "terrorists" in Iraq who beheaded our citizens and who use indiscriminant, "cowardly" tactics to kill our troops and Iraqi civilians, and they think that this is one way to accomplish this goal. To such folks, "taking off the gloves" has an emotional appeal to it. The foe are animals; they don't deserve to be treated with respect they don't give to our guys. To such armchair warfighters, things like waterboarding pose tempting shortcuts to get the information we need to save American lives. In addition, the person who might bite on such an approach is able to turn to many authority figures and role models who will reassure him that this is the way to go, whereas those experienced intelligence professionals who can give many reasons to counter the appeal of these techniques tend not to hold the spotlight.

. . . Now stir in a heavy dose of persuasive drama in shows like "24," which show the American hero brutalizing prisoners and invariably getting the hot intelligence he needs to save a city in a matter of moments (not counting the break for a commercial). How persuasive is that to many viewers? I can tell you that it was certainly persuasive to some young Army interrogators I taught last year at Ft. Sam Houston. . . .

Almost no one who has interrogated people would deny that there could be this or that specific case wherein some kind of torture or coercive tactic might cause a prisoner with a low threshhold of pain, or who has faltering loyalty to his cause, to cough up valid information. That is always possible. Anyone can conjure up a construct that would show a harsh tactic as effective in a specific case.

But this does not make the tactic right, legal, morally correct, wise for our country's policy, effective, or defensible, and such a hypothetical does not begin to compensate for the damage done to our country and its stance as a "shining city on a hill" when our people stoop to the kinds of conduct that we have condemned over history when practiced by the Gestapo, the North Koreans, the Chinese, the Islamists, or whomever.

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Tom Ricks is The Post's military correspondent. This feature aims to give readers a snapshot of the conversations about Iraq, Afghanistan and other matters that play out in Ricks's e-mail inbox. Have an interesting document? Send it to

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