President Bush Vetoes Legislation Banning Waterboarding


On Saturday, March 8, 2008, President Bush announced that he had vetoed legislation that would have banned the CIA from using harsh interrogation methods, such as waterboarding, to break suspected terrorists because it would end practices that he said have prevented attacks.

The bill he rejected provides guidelines for intelligence activities and has the interrogation requirement as one provision. It cleared the House in December and the Senate last month. Supporters of the legislation say it would preserve the United States’ ability to collect critical intelligence, while also providing a much-needed boost to country’s moral standing abroad. The bill would have limited CIA interrogators to the 19 techniques allowed for use by military questioners. In 2006, the Army field manual in 2006 banned using methods such as waterboarding or sensory deprivation on uncooperative prisoners.

President Bush’s veto will be one of the most shameful acts of his presidency,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said in a statement on Friday. “Unless Congress overrides the veto, it will go down in history as a flagrant insult to the rule of law and a serious stain on the good name of America in the eyes of the world.”


The Origins

In the medieval form of waterboarding, a victim was strapped to a board and tipped back or lowered into a body of water until he or she believed that drowning was imminent. The subject was then removed from the water and revived. If necessary the process was repeated.

Although in a technical sense there are actually several other forms of water-based interrogation, all variants have in common that the victim reliably almost drowns but is rescued or re-animated by his captor just before death occurs. The technique is designed to be both psychological and physical. The psychological effect is inherent in the fact that the victim is given to understand that he shall be killed outright by dint of enforced drowning unless his cooperation as demanded is indeed produced promptly. This perception reinforces the interrogator’s control and gives the victim sound cause to experience mortal fear.

The physical effects are extreme pain and damage to the lungs, brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation and sometimes broken bones because of the restraints applied to the struggling victim. The psychological effects can be long-lasting.

Modern Waterboarding

The modern practice of waterboarding, characterized in 2005 by former CIA director Porter J. Goss as a “professional interrogation technique“, involves tying the victim to a board with the head lower than the feet so that he or she is unable to move. A piece of cloth is held tightly over the face, and water is poured onto the cloth. Breathing is extremely difficult and the victim will be in fear of imminent death by asphyxiation. However, it is relatively difficult to aspirate a large amount of water since the lungs are higher than the mouth, and the victim is unlikely to actually die if this is done by skilled practitioners. Waterboarding may be used by captors who wish to impose anguish without leaving marks on their victims as evidence. Journalists Brian Ross and Richard Esposito described the CIA‘s waterboarding technique as follows:

The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt. According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last over two minutes before begging to confess. “The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

In the United States, military personnel are taught this technique, ostensibly to demonstrate how to resist enemy interrogations in the event of capture. According to, SERE instructors shared their torture techniques with interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp. According to the CIA’s own description of the waterboarding torture technique, the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

Waterboarding has often been described in the media in a “matter-of-fact” manner. In the past, The Washington Post has simply referred to waterboarding as an interrogation measure that “simulates drowning.” But what does waterboarding look like? Below is a photograph taken by Jonah Blank last month at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The prison is now a museum that documents Khymer Rouge atrocities. Blank, an anthropologist and former Senior Editor of US News & World Report, is the author of the books Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God and Mullahs on the Mainframe. He is a professorial lecturer at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and has taught at Harvard and Georgetown universities

This photo shows one of the actual waterboards used by the Khymer Rouge:

What follows below is a demonstration of a “waterboarding.” It certainly captures the essence of this technique that is now directly authorized by the president, and used by the CIA at the behest of the president and vice-president. If you believe that what you are watching is “severe mental or physical pain,” then it is torture under U.S. law, and the U.N. Treaty. It is undeniably a violation of the Geneva Convention. If it is torture, according to the president himself, then it be should stopped. At this moment in history, let us at least look at what is being done by the government and call it by its proper name.

Waterboarding: A Live Demonstration

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