Throughout the ages, water-based forms of torture have gone by many euphemisms, but the intent has nearly always been the same.
In the late morning of November 26, 2002, at a secret CIA torture site in Thailand code-named Cat’s Eye, al-Qaeda operative Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri looked past James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the interrogators who had been slamming him into a wall, to see a hospital gurney being wheeled into his cell. Heavily muscled men, covered from head to toe in black, forced him onto the gurney and strapped him to it. Nashiri was so thin that Mitchell and Jessen had difficulty tightening the straps enough to immobilize him. After itemizing the information they were seeking from him (and presumably deemed him to be withholding), Mitchell and Jessen stepped out of the cell, leaving Nashiri strapped to the gurney.
Twenty minutes later, at 11:47 a.m., Mitchell and Jessen returned. Previewing just how bad things were going to get, they promised Nashiri that they wouldn’t let him die because they needed him to answer their questions. When Nashiri insisted that he didn’t know or couldn’t recall anything his captors considered useful, they splashed some water on his chest and expressed their dissatisfaction. This back and forth—with Nashiri desperately attempting through tears to remember something that would satisfy Mitchell and Jessen and the two men accusing Nashiri of lying—continued for 27 minutes.
At 12:14 p.m., the CIA contractors placed a cloth over Nashiri’s face, covering his nose and mouth, and began to pour water over it. As he struggled to breathe and started ingesting water, they removed the cloth and stood the gurney up vertically. Nashiri, gurgling and gasping, strained to clear water from his sinuses as he began to slip down between the Velcro straps of the gurney. Although it likely seemed an eternity to Nashiri, only two minutes had elapsed. The interrogators returned him to a horizontal position and placed a hood over his head. As they left the room, Nashiri trembled and moaned, repeatedly begging God to help him.
The respite lasted all of 13 minutes. As they adjusted the straps that kept Nashiri’s head immobile, Mitchell and Jessen told Nashiri to tell them everything. Nashiri said that he would, in the name of God, but what he said must have failed to satisfy them, for 11 minutes later, over Nashiri’s protests, they again covered his face with the cloth and poured water on it until he began to choke. Once again they stood the gurney up, enabling him to breathe. After hearing more demands to reveal plots against the United States and more threats that the torture would continue until he provided the information his captors were seeking, Nashiri was removed from the gurney, stripped, and locked in a small box. Although Nashiri would continue to be waterboarded, subjected to mock executions, and tortured in other ways, Jessen himself would later admit that Nashiri never provided any “actionable” information.
“Waterboard.” “Water treatment.” “Water cure.” “Water rag.” This form of torture goes by many euphemisms. Requiring only a source of water and small piece of cloth and exploiting a person’s involuntary reactions to asphyxiation, it is as economical and vicious as it is old. It is different from other water-based forms of torture, including submersion up to the airways, that intend not to frighten the detainee with drowning but to inflict pain with unbearably cold temperatures. Abu Hudhaifa (a detainee who was later found to be innocent and released), for example, was submerged in a bathtub filled with ice water at a CIA safehouse. In practice the two forms of torture are often combined. The attorneys for another CIA detainee, Majid Khan, claim that his interrogators “shackled him, placed a hood over his head, and lowered him into a tub of ice water,” then “forced [his] head underwater until he feared he would drown,” and, after pulling his head out of the water, “demanded answers to questions and again dunked his head underwater.”
Another form of torture—forcibly pouring or pumping water into the stomach—was known as le question d’eau in medieval France and el tormento de toca in the Spanish Inquisition. It was part of Castilian criminal law in the 16th century and, perhaps through Spanish colonization, turned up in the Philippines, where, in 1902, American soldiers used it against Filipino insurgents, causing a scandal. The Spanish weren’t alone in using this form of torture: The British used it in Palestine against both Arabs and Jews; the Japanese used it in World War II; the French used it against prisoners in Algeria on and off throughout the 1950s; the Brazilian military used it against suspected leftists in the 1970s. There are abundant reports of its use in other countries around the world as well.
Forcibly pouring water down someone’s throat is a close cousin to waterboarding, if only in intent. In practice they are siblings. Where the intent is ingestion, the stomach and intestines eventually fill, which not only causes extreme pain but forces the water back up the throat. It was “a suffocating payne,” said William Lithgow, who was subjected to the treatment when he was falsely accused of being a spy in Spain in 1620, “the water reingorging it selfe in my throate with the struggling force; it strangled and swallowed up my breath from youling and groaning.” Where the intent is to temporarily asphyxiate, a victim’s desperate attempts to keep his airway open forces him to swallow as much water as possible. Al-Qaeda 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ingested so much water that the CIA medical officer on duty said that he was “worried about water intoxication and dilution of electrolytes,” which can be fatal.
The asphyxiation version of the torture takes two basic forms. The first, and presumably more archaic, is dunking the mouth and nose into water, perhaps infused with such irritants as lime, soap, pepper, or excrement. Drawing on earlier traditions of trying witches via the “ordeal,” the British and later their colonists in America dunked “nagging” women into water in a specially designed chair. Nazi Germany’s Gestapo deemed France’s use of la baignoire (the bathtub) to be so effective that its interrogators adopted the practice in Norway and Czechoslovakia. The bathtub spread to other countries and became la bañera in Spain and el submarino in South American military dictatorships after 1960. On March 13, 1983, for example, members of Battalion 316, the notorious Honduran intelligence unit, kidnapped and then immersed Marxist guerrilla Inés Murillo in a barrel of water in an attempt to extract information from her.
The second and perhaps more recent version of the torture involves pouring water over an immobilized mouth and nose draped with a wet cloth. Although this method is commonly attributed to the Dutch, it was already considered an “ordinary French torture” in Praxis Criminis Persequendi, a 1541 legal treatise by Jean Milles de Souvigny. But it is certainly true that the Dutch used the technique. Ernestus Eremundus Frisius described it in his 16th-century history of conflict in the Netherlands, and the English accused the Dutch of systematically applying the torture in 1623 to their countrymen suspected of a plot against the Dutch in Amboyna in what is today Maluku, Indonesia.
Like its older sibling, this form of torture spread throughout the world. The British employed waterboarding in Cyprus in 1950s. French paratroops used it in Algeria alongside la baignoire, as documented in brutal detail by communist journalist and newspaper editor Henri Alleg in his memoir La Question. The French imported it from their time in Vietnam in the early 1950s, where both the South Vietnamese and some American soldiers would continue the practice. The highest ranking North Vietnamese officer captured during the Vietnam War was tortured with the “water rag” in addition to multiple other techniques, though he apparently never provided any information.
The economy, simplicity, and manifest cruelty of waterboarding destined it to be deployed in many places, including in the United States. An investigation by the Alabama state legislature in 1881, for example, found that a coal company employing convict labor had waterboarded prisoners for “wilful [sic] neglect of work.” A Texas county sheriff and his deputies were convicted of waterboarding two prisoners in 1983. The CIA’s eventual adoption of waterboarding was the result of two partly independent influences: the experiences of American pilots captured during the Korean War and lessons from France’s experience with counterinsurgency, especially in Algeria.
Troubled by the lurid false confessions the pilots made, the U.S. military sought ways to “inoculate” future pilots and other military personnel at high risk of capture from the effects of those tortures. To that end the Pentagon created Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) schools that simulated each of these phases of captivity. In the resistance phase, students were subjected to various tortures, including waterboarding. Although the military would continue to use waterboarding at SERE schools for decades, by July 1, 2002—one month before the CIA would waterboard its first detainee—the army, air force, and all other military forces save the navy had dropped the technique from their curriculums, considering it too brutal. The navy followed suit in 2007. That did not prevent James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who had been psychologists at SERE schools, from resurrecting waterboarding along with other SERE techniques in their proposal to the CIA to reverse-engineer them to interrogate al-Qaeda suspects after 9/11.
The second influence, the “French connection,” is actually two converging French connections. The indirect route we have already encountered: American troops and perhaps the CIA as well picked up the technique from their South Vietnamese counterparts, who had also used it with the French before the French left in 1954. The second route is more direct, yet also circuitous. One of the leaders of French forces during the Battle of Algiers, Brigadier General Paul Aussaresses, was seconded in 1961 to the U.S. Special Forces at Fort Bragg, where he taught a course on counterinsurgency. He admitted that he taught students about torture, and one of the books he used was sent to a CIA official who would later lead the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam, a counterinsurgency campaign that employed torture extensively. Although waterboarding was not listed explicitly, the same approach to torture found its way into the CIA’s KUBARK interrogation manual of 1963, which also drew on CIA-funded research on Korean and Chinese techniques from the 1950s. (KUBARK was the CIA’s cryptonym for itself.) From 1966 to 1986 this manual, or versions of it, were used in army intelligence courses on counterinsurgency taught to visiting officers from Latin America. Some of these graduates would later be implicated in torture in their home countries. According to one study, for example, nearly nine in 10 survivors of torture under Uruguay’s military dictatorship reported having been waterboarded. The Pentagon recalled the manuals in 1992 and ordered them destroyed, but apparently then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and his staff counsel, David Addington, saved copies for themselves. A decade later both men would play an important role in the creation of a torture program that included waterboarding.
Waterboarding in the CIA program was justified as involving merely “the perception of drowning” or “the sensation of drowning.” This is false. It is simply drowning that is stopped before the detainee dies, though often not before he or she loses consciousness. It is, in other words, an arrested execution. Since it is more easily—but never perfectly—controllable, it permits torturers to bring detainees closer to death gradually over a relatively longer period of time and so presumably augment their fear in a way different from most if not all other tortures.
A detainee who is beaten, for example, can sustain a life-threatening injury without that fact being immediately apparent to the interrogator. Even certain stress techniques can have this delayed effect. Electrocution runs the risk of cardiac arrest. (In truth waterboarding does as well, though torturers may not realize it.) The point is that a detainee might suddenly die from electrocution; similarly, a detainee might black out and then unexpectedly die later from beating or stress positions. Waterboarding permits the torturer to prolong the period of dying with more—but again not perfect—control.
To that degree, waterboarding is really a form of mock execution. It differs from some other forms of mock execution, such as racking an empty pistol next to the ear of a blindfolded detainee or pushing a blindfolded prisoner out of a helicopter that’s hovering a few feet off the ground, both of which cause extreme fear of death but tend to be over quickly. Waterboarding, in contrast, is slower; the detainee has time to desperately swallow as much water as he can, then try to prevent the water from going down his windpipe, and then remain terrifyingly conscious for some period as his airway begins to fill with water, and oxygen is cut off from his brain.
On September 13, 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron officially acknowledged his country’s extensive use of waterboarding and other forms of torture during the 1954–1962 war in Algeria, and he apologized to the widow of a prominent victim. The contrast with the United States is stark. President Donald Trump has openly promised to bring back torture worse than waterboarding, and Gina Haspel, who became the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in May 2018, was in charge of that secret CIA prison in Thailand when Nashiri was being waterboarded. (In 2005 the CIA destroyed all videotapes showing detainees being waterboarded.) It took France six decades to admit to torture. Although President Barack Obama once acknowledged that the United States had “tortured some folks,” it appears that America’s reckoning with torture is a long way off.
John W. Schiemann is a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. He is the author of Does Torture Work? (Oxford University Press, 2015).