It was called the “water cure.” But it was dosed out liberally to those who weren’t sick. Unfortunate recipients were held by the neck beneath a water tank. The tap was turned on, and they were forced to swallow the gushing stream–or to choke within an inch of death while trying. Another variation used tubing to siphon water from a kerosene can into a detainee’s nostril. Sworn testimony records the use of this tactic in the presence of a doctor. It was, after all, a “cure.” When the detainee still refused to talk, the doctor would ratchet up the treatment, ordering a second tube to be placed in the detainee’s other nostril and a handful of salt to be thrown into the water. Anyone who’s ever had sea water up his or her nose will know just how pleasant that would have been.
This interrogation tactic comes not from the “war on terror” but from the war in the Philippines more than 100 years ago. There too the abuses were justified by the need to combat troublesome local “insurgents.” The enemy was “not civilized” and did not deserve to be treated according to the rules of civilized warfare. The water cure is, of course, the precursor to a more recent interrogation technique known as “waterboarding.” And the participation of the physician is an early example of American medical personnel being co-opted into an egregious and unlawful military mission. The doctor’s presence did not restrain the interrogator’s excesses; on the contrary, he actively fueled them.
After 9/11 some American healthcare personnel were once again asked to step into the breach and help Army interrogators conduct aggressive interrogations. They have, among others, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller–former camp commander at Guantánamo Bay–to thank for this. Miller considered the participation of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams–known colloquially as “Biscuits”–to be an “essential” part of the interrogation process. Having introduced the first Biscuit to the Guantánamo facility in late 2002, Miller urged the deployment of a similar team at Abu Ghraib in late 2003. These Biscuits were staffed at various times by psychologists and/or psychiatrists.
The Defense Department has acknowledged that several Biscuit staff were sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for training at SERE school–short for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. This is where American soldiers are taught how to resist their captors. Training is based on exposure to abusive tactics, some tantamount to torture, delivered by fellow soldiers. (That these tactics are designed to break detainees and procure false confessions–not to produce intelligence–appears to have been overlooked by the Administration when it decided to deploy them in the “war on terror.”) At SERE school, Biscuit healthcare personnel acquired a grounding in the now well-publicized techniques of hooding, prolonged isolation, stress positions, sleep deprivation and exposure to loud noise and temperature extremes–techniques often used in combination.
They brought this knowledge back to Guantánamo Bay, where–according to an internal Army report–they offered opinions on the character and personalities of detainees, advised on interrogation plans and approaches, and provided feedback on interrogation technique. Army documents also record that Biscuit personnel sometimes sat in on interrogations. Notably, the name of a Biscuit psychologist appears in the interrogation log of Guantánamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani. According to that log–a copy of which was obtained by Time magazine–Qahtani was questioned for eighteen to twenty hours per day for forty-eight out of fifty-four consecutive days in late 2002 and early 2003. During that time, he was subjected to an array of tactics that included exposure to temperature extremes, barking military dogs, strip searches, stress positions, being led around on a leash and being forced to stand naked in front of women. In addition to these measures–many of which were held “legally permissible” in a recent Army report–a medical corpsman forcibly administered three and a half bags of intravenous fluid. Qahtani was refused a promised bathroom break and, when he became desperate, he was told to go in his pants.