November 13, 2007
Last week, Michael Mukasey became the new Attorney General of the United States after a brief but contentious confirmation battle in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The former federal judge’s confirmation hit a road bump when senators questioned him about U.S. torture policy. At issue was a practice known as “waterboarding” that the United States has used on some terrorism detainees, including alleged Al Qaeda plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. While Mukasey described the technique as “repugnant,” he refused to describe it as torture or call it illegal, arguing that since he has not been briefed on how the United States uses the technique, he wasn’t in a position to make that judgment.
Given the substantial evidence suggesting that the United States has tortured a number of its terrorism detainees–sometimes in secret prisons, or “black sites,” located in foreign countries–Mukasey’s refusal to denounce waterboarding as torture raised serious concerns for many onlookers.
Opponents of waterboarding say that the technique is torture and is therefore off limits to anyone affiliated with the United States or its military. The Bush administration, for its part, has asserted that the president, as the executive-in-chief, has the power to ignore any law that infringes on his interpretation of broad executive power. And Bush’s top legal advisors redefined torture in ways that allowed the administration to ignore prohibitions against it.
As Mukasey begins his tenure at the Justice Department, it’s important to bring some clarity to this issue. The debate over waterboarding has centered on whether or not it’s torture. But, in fact, this is a settled question for those outside the Bush administration. As the United States continues to apprehend suspected terrorists, it is vital that Americans understand what is being done to detainees in their name, and any such understanding requires that they know the facts about waterboarding.
What Is Waterboarding?
There’s some debate over the precise definition of the term. New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer described it as a practice in which the victim “is bound and immersed in water until he nearly drowns.” Generally, though, it designates a more complicated procedure.
As the technique is usually practiced, the victim is strapped to an inclined board which is lowered so that his head is below his chest. A rag or towel is stuffed into the victim’s mouth (plastic wrap can also be used), and water is poured onto the victim’s face. The victim quickly begins inhaling the water, triggering a drowning sensation and full-blown panic responses. Few people can withstand waterboarding for more than a few seconds. Waterboarding is not “simulated drowning,” as some have called it. During the technique, water enters the victim’s lungs–so actual drowning is, in fact, slowly taking place.