Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is seen shortly after his capture during a raid in Pakistan on March 1, 2003. (Associated Press)

“That’s not true. In fact, one detainee alone was subjected to waterboarding 183 times.”
— Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), remarks concerning attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, Jan. 31

A reader asked about this comment by Feinstein, believing it to be exaggerated. She made the remark while quoting Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, as saying that waterboarding “was utilized only three times” against detainees held after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Sessions’s remarks appear to refer to the frequent statements by George W. Bush administration officials that only three people were waterboarded: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein (better known as Abu Zubaida) and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. (Human Rights Watch in 2012 cast doubt on that claim after the Moammar Gaddafi regime fell in Libya and documents and interviews revealed other credible accounts of waterboarding of detainees.)

Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, has frequently been described — not only by Feinstein but also in the pages of The Washington Post and the New York Times — as having been waterboarded “183 times.” Al-Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaida, meanwhile, is described as being waterboarded 83 times. Nashiri, who headed al-Qaeda’s Persian Gulf operations, was said to have been waterboarded three times.

But what do these figures actually mean? Given that President Trump has expressed interest in authorizing waterboarding again, claiming that it produces actionable intelligence, it’s important to get the numbers right.

The Facts

Waterboarding — which is now banned under federal law — is intended to simulate drowning. A person is strapped to a board with the upper part of his body on a downward incline. Then, a cloth is placed over the person’s mouth, and water is poured over his face, causing the person to have difficulty breathing and to feel as though his lungs are filling with water.

Here’s how the Justice Department’s 2002 guidance to the CIA described what happened:

“Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers the mouth and nose, air flow is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds due to the presence of the cloth. This causes an increase in carbon dioxide level in the individual’s blood. This increase in the carbon dioxide level stimulates increased effort to breathe. This effort plus the cloth produces the perception of ‘suffocation and incipient panic,’ i.e., the perception of drowning. The individual does not breathe any water into his lungs.”

Then, the detainee is allowed to have three or four full breaths, and “the sensation of drowning is immediately relieved by the removal of the cloth.” The guidance then says: “You have also orally informed us that it is likely that this procedure would not last more than 20 minutes in any one application.”

Notice the word “application.” In a 2004 Justice Department memo, the word was used again to describe a waterboarding session: “On each day, the total time of the applications of the technique will not exceed 20 minutes. The period over which the technique is used will not extend longer than 30 days, and the technique will not be used on more than 15 days in this period.”

When the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2006 interviewed Mohammed and Abu Zubaida about how many times they were waterboarded, they also spoke in terms of sessions.

Mohammed (KSM) said he was subjected to waterboarding on five occasions, all of which occurred during the first month:

“I would be strapped to a special bed, which can be rotated into a vertical position. A cloth would be placed over my face. Water was then poured onto the cloth by one of the guards so that I could not breathe. This obviously could only be done for one or two minutes at a time. The cloth was then removed and the bed was put into a vertical position. The whole process was then repeated during about 1 hour.”

Abu Zubaida also said he experienced five sessions of waterboarding:

“I was put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds caused severe pain. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to a horizontal position and the same torture carried out with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downward position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled without success to breathe. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.”

So what do the higher numbers mean? That refers to how many times water was poured on the cloth, not how many sessions of waterboarding took place. But investigative reports have used the term “application” to mean pours of water, not sessions.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA program, released in 2014, under a section titled “The CIA Waterboards KSM at Least 183 Times,” says that “on March 10, 2003, KSM was subjected to the first of his 15 separate waterboarding sessions.” (It’s unclear why Mohammed remembers five sessions when the report says 15.)

Later, the report says, “On March 24, 2003, KSM underwent his fifteenth and final documented waterboarding session due to his ‘intransigence’ in failing to identify suspected Abu Bakr al-Azdi operations in the United States, and for having ‘lied about poison and biological warfare programs.’ ”

At one point, the report says, “KSM had been subjected to more than 65 applications of water during the four waterboarding sessions between the afternoon of March 12, 2003, and the morning of March 13, 2003.” The report added: “On the afternoon of March 13, 2003, KSM was subjected to his third waterboard session of that calendar day and fifth in 25 hours. CIA records note that KSM vomited during and after the procedure.”

How long were the applications of water? That is unclear, though it appears the maximum time permitted was not often reached.

The CIA inspector general’s 2004 report on the program says that, in the case of Abu Zubaida, most of the pours “lasted less than 10 seconds.” The report describes each pour as a “waterboard application” that it said “constituted each discrete instance in which water was applied during any period of time during a session.” A review of videotapes (since destroyed) found that interrogators “continuously applied large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainees mouth and nose,” rather than a “small amount of water to the cloth in a controlled manner,” the IG report said.

A footnote in the Senate report says that Mohammed was subjected to 40-second exposures of water at least 19 times, which would be about 10 percent of the pours.

James Mitchell, who under contract with the CIA oversaw the interrogations, disputes the Senate footnote. “I know we didn’t go over 40 seconds because the CIA police personnel acting as guards counted off the seconds as water was poured and they had instructions to signal stop before it exceeded 40 seconds,” he said. “So I doubt that happened. I know we kept the average length of the pours to a similar length as we did for Abu Zubaida, most lasting less than 10 seconds.”

In other words, the numbers “183 and “83” reflect the numbers of times water was poured on the face of a detainee, which could have been a matter of seconds. From the perspective of the interrogators, each waterboarding session was not the pours, but the length of time on the board, which was set at a maximum of 20 minutes under Justice Department guidance.

Tom Mentzer, Feinstein’s spokesman, said that the “operative term is ‘waterboard session.’ A ‘waterboarding session’ can include multiple applications of the ‘waterboard.’ One can be waterboarded multiple times in one waterboard session.” He further noted that the CIA, in its response to the study, did not dispute the numbers, “which they certainly would have if they had cause to.”

In any case, the waterboarding sessions were painful and difficult, according to the Senate report. “The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaida, for example, became ‘completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth…. [He] remained unresponsive until medical intervention, when he regained consciousness and expelled ‘copious amounts of liquid,’ ” the report said. “Internal CIA records describe the waterboarding of Khalid Shaykh Mohammad as evolving into a ‘series of near drownings.’ ”

The report added that during the interrogation of Abu Zubaida, “several on the [CIA] team [were] profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up.”

The Senate report noted:

Over the course of the entire 20 day “aggressive phase of interrogation,” Abu Zubaida spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box, which had a width of 21 inches, a depth of 2.5 feet, and a height of 2.5 feet. The CIA interrogators told Abu Zubaida that the only way he would leave the facility was in the coffin-shaped confinement box.

Mitchell, who says he had himself waterboarded before doing the interrogations, acknowledged that the experience “really sucks.… It was anxiety-producing and disconcerting. I didn’t want to do it again.”

The Pinocchio Test

The correct number to use in reference to the waterboarding of Mohammed and Abu Zubaida is a matter of perspective.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report refers to “waterboarding sessions.” Detainees and interrogators apparently regarded a session as the 20-minute period on the board, which included numerous pours of water. So, in the case of the two detainees, that happened between five and 15 times.

At the same time, saying Mohammed was “waterboarded 183 times,” as Feinstein and the news media have done, might be considered acceptable shorthand for the experience of having water poured on a detainee’s face while a cloth is placed on a detainee’s nose and mouth, producing the sensation of drowning.

It would be more precise to explain that this happened in 15 sessions (in other words, an average of 12 times in 20 minutes) and that many of the applications of water may have been only a matter of seconds. But that does not mean that it did not happen 183 and 83 times for Mohammed and Abu Zubaida, respectively.

We would argue for additional precision by lawmakers and the news media going forward, referring specifically to applications of water, but we will leave this unrated.

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"One detainee [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] alone was subjected to waterboarding 183 times.”
in a statement at the Senate Judiciary Committee
Tuesday, January 31, 2017