The Corner

Joe Carter Grossly Uninformed on Waterboarding

Over at First Things, Joe Carter attempts to justify his shameful comparison between the lawful techniques employed by the CIA and the tortures employed during the Spanish Inquisition, but fails. He offers us this short snippet from a book by Oxford Scholar Cecil Roth: 

The water-torture was more ingenious, and more fiendish. The prisoner was fastened almost naked on a sort of trestle with sharp-edged rungs and kept in position with an iron band, his head lower than his feet, and his limbs bound to the side-pieces with agonizing tightness. The mouth was then forced open and a strip of linen inserted into the gullet. Through this, water was poured from a jar (jarra), obstructing the throat and nostrils and producing a state of semi-suffocation. The process was repeated time after time, as many as eight jarras being applied.

Carter then asks: 

How does this differ from the CIA method?

Well Joe, here’s how. In Courting Disaster, I went back and looked at precisely how water torture was employed during the Spanish Inquisition — and it was nothing like the techniques employed by the CIA.  Here is slightly more detailed description from Henry Charles Lea’s 1906 book, A History of the Inquisition in Spain:

The patient was placed on . . . a kind of trestle with sharp-edged rungs across it like a ladder. It slanted so that the head was lower than the feet and, at the lower end was a depression in which the head sank, while an iron band around the forehead or throat made it immovable. Sharp cords, called cordeles, which cut into the flesh, attached the arms and legs to the side of the trestle and others, known as garrotes, from sticks thrust in them and twisted around like a tourniquet till the cords cut more or less deeply into the flesh, were twined around the upper and lower arms, the thighs and the calves. . . .

The cords on the rack, Lea writes,

were carried to a maestro garrote by which the executioner could control all at once. These worked not only by compression, but by traveling around the limbs, carrying away skin and flesh. Each half round was reckoned a vuelta or turn, six or seven of which was the maximum, but it was usual not to exceed five. Formerly the same was done with the cord around the forehead, but this was abandoned as it was apt to start the eyes from their sockets.

Once the “patient” was secured to the rack, Lea explains,

An iron prong, distended the mouth, a toca, or strip of linen was thrust down the throat to conduct water trickling slowly from a jarra or jar, holding usually a little more than a quart. The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, the toca was withdrawn and he was adjured to tell the truth. The severity of the infliction was measured by the number of jarras consumed, sometimes reaching six or eight.

Sorry Joe, none of this even remotely resembles the technique as applied by the CIA. No cutting cords travelling around the limbs, twisting like a tourniquet and ripping away skin and flesh; no cord tightening around the head causing the victims eyes to pop from his skull; no iron prong distending the mouth; no strip of linen thrust down the throat to carry the water into the internal organs. No comparison whatsoever.

Carter also tries to justify his scurrilous charge that the CIA used the same techniques that Imperial Japan used on American POWs. He fails here too. Carter cites the case of Yukio Asano, stating that Asano was

“charged with ‘Violation of the Laws and Customs of War: 1. Did willfully and unlawfully mistreat and torture PWs.’ Among the specifications listed were ‘beating using hands, fists, club; kicking; water torture; burning using cigarettes; strapping on a stretcher head downward’.” 

No description at all of said “water torture” — just the assumption that it must be the same as what the CIA did. And he states:

“No doubt Mr. Thieseen [sic] will regale us with some bit of sophistry about how this ‘water torture’ (simulated drowning) is radically different from waterboarding (which is also simulated drowning).”

No sophistry needed, Joe — just the facts.

Unfortunately for Carter, I did a little research on the Asano case for Courting Disaster. I dug up his files from the archives of the University of California-Berkley’s War Crimes Studies Center, and the documents prove Joe is spectacularly wrong. What Asano did to American POWs (who, unlike al-Qaeda terrorists, were lawful combatants and enjoyed full Geneva protections) does not remotely compare to the CIA’s handling of al-Qaeda terrorists.

Some details: 

According to the records of Staff Judge Advocate in Asano’s case, Asano and three other Japanese officers took an American Prisoner of War, William O. Cash “and forced him to stretch himself upon a ladder and proceeded to strike him across the back from the shoulders to the hips.” In this same session, another American POW, Thomas B. Armitage, “was then beaten about 15 times across his back during which he was knocked to the ground several times. Armitage was then extended on a ladder, head down, and these accused then poured about two gallons of water from a pitcher into his nose and mouth until he lost consciousness. Each time he was revived, they repeated the same beating and ‘water cure.’” Asano and his accomplices then “took lighted cigarettes and pressed them against the cuticle of his fingernails of his left hand. Three of prisoner Armitage’s fingernails came off as a result of this torture. Both Cash and [American POW Dave] Woodall were similarly treated. These tortures lasted about six hours. Prisoner Woodall was hospitalized for about two days as a result of these treatments.”

In another incident, Asano and other Japanese officers “struck [American POW Morris O.] Killough across the face with the buckle and the end of their belts. After this lasted for a half-hour he collapsed to his knees. They then kicked him with their hobnailed shoes and threw water on him. They tied him to a stretcher, gagged him and elevated his legs. Then they poured water up his nostrils for five minutes.”

The review found that Asano “participated in and caused many beatings of prisoners. His usual weapon was a web canteen with which he beat the prisoners on the head. Sometimes he used a wooden club. On occasion these beatings lasted for as long as two hours and left the victim in a pitiable condition.”

To suggest Asano got fifteen years of hard labor for what CIA interrogators do with waterboarding is simply false.

In Courting Disaster, I go though other examples of how the Japanese employed water torture — and all of it rebuts Carter’s charge that these techniques are the same as the techniques used by the CIA.

For example, the Japanese used a water torture technique called “rice torture”: They starved prisoners, then fed them large amounts of uncooked rice, and then they pumped them full of water, causing the rice to expand and stretch their internal organs to near-bursting. In another technique called the “Tokio-wine treatment” the Japanese used hoses and tea kettles to funnel water down the throat until the victim passed out — and then jumped on his stomach, causing him to vomit up the water and become revived, only to then start the process over again. Moreover, when the Japanese pumped their victims, they often used sea water, kerosene, or water mixed with human filth. 

None of this is even remotely comparable to what the CIA did. Carter’s comparison is sloppy and shameful. I’ll be generous and say he errs of ignorance rather than malice.

Carter tries to respond to my point that we waterboard tens of thousands of U.S. troops during training, by arguing that waterboarding as conducted in SERE training and waterboarding of terrorists is different. Well, of course it is Joe — no great insight there. But he does not answer my question: Do we torture our own troops during SERE training? Afterall, we do not pull out their fingernails during training, or electrocute them, or break their bones leg screws, or burn their fingernails off with cigarettes. But we do waterboard them. Why is waterboarding permitted, but these other techniques are not? Because the other techniques constitute torture; waterboarding does not.

If Carter acknowledges that we do not torture our troops (which he must, or else appear ridiculous) then he must also admit that the act of waterboarding is not an intrinsic evil, as defined by the Catholic Church. An intrinsic evil is an act that it, of its own nature, evil regardless of circumstances. This is not true of waterboarding. The circumstances matter. And if the circumstances matter, then it is not the open and shut case Carter makes it out to be. We can reasonably disagree over whether the circumstances in the case of KSM justified the use of waterboarding. But this was prudential judgment for those in authority, who have much more information than Carter does.

I could go on, but the answers to Carter’s many other gross misstatements are in my book. For example, Carter cites FBI agent Ali Soufan as a source to cast doubt on the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation. I take Soufan apart in Courting Disaster, presenting Justice Department documents which prove Soufan’s testimony wrong and show that he has actually employed coercive interrogation techniques himself. Carter says I do not make an argument based on Christian principles. I dedicate an entire chapter of Courting Disaster to doing just that. Read the book and judge for yourselves.

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