Saturday, November 17, 2007

Vietnam vet describes witnessing waterboarding

[Tom Ricks is the Pentagon correspondent for the
Washington Post. Below is an email that Ricks
received from retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, a
veteran military intelligence officer.]

* * *

Here is my take on your specific question concerning
why some out there think it (waterboarding) works, and
what might you be missing. In the interests of
disclosure, I have seen waterboarding attempted in a
hostile environment once, against a 19 year old rural
woman who had the misfortune to live in an area
regularly frequented at night by Viet Cong units. With
her entire family wailing in the courtyard of their
straw home, she writhed on the ground, trying to throw
off the four men who had her pinned down with a poncho
over her face while the team leader poured water onto
the poncho. She told the PRU who were doing it
nothing, insisting she did not know, and appeared
close to death before they stopped. It could not be
determined whether she knew nothing, or was just
willing to die rather than provide the nightly
visiting schedule of the local VC cadre.

I told both the PRU leader and his Agency advisor that
I would not accompany them again if they were going to
treat villagers in this manner. It is inconceivable to
me that anyone who has ever witnessed this tactic
would not consider it torture. I also think the debate
about whether a given harsh interrogation practice is
technically "torture" or merely a "coercive
interrogation technique" is the kind of hair
splitting, legalistic smokescreen argument that folks
love to toss out these days.

Now to the issue: There is a consituency of frustrated
Americans, in and out of government, who want to
believe that waterboarding or the like works. They
want to get even with the enemy; to avenge the losses
of 9-11; and obtain information to prevent a repeat.
Or they want to eliminate the "terrorists" in Iraq who
beheaded our citizens and who use indiscriminant,
"cowardly" tactics to kill our troops and Iraqi
civilians, and they think that this is one way to
accomplish this goal. To such folks, "taking off the
gloves" has an emotional appeal to it. The foe are
animals; they don't deserve to be treated with respect
they don't give to our guys. To such armchair
warfighters, things like waterboarding pose tempting
shortcuts to get the information we need to save
American lives. In addition, the person who might bite
on such an approach is able to turn to many authority
figures and role models who will reassure him that
this is the way to go, whereas those experienced
intelligence professionals who can give many reasons
to counter the appeal of these techniques tend not to
hold the spotlight.

. . . Now stir in a heavy dose of persuasive drama in
shows like "24," which show the American hero
brutalizing prisoners and invariably getting the hot
intelligence he needs to save a city in a matter of
moments (not counting the break for a commercial). How
persuasive is that to many viewers? I can tell you
that it was certainly persuasive to some young Army
interrogators I taught last year at Ft. Sam Houston. .
. .

Almost no one who has interrogated people would deny
that there could be this or that specific case wherein
some kind of torture or coercive tactic might cause a
prisoner with a low threshhold of pain, or who has
faltering loyalty to his cause, to cough up valid
information. That is always possible. Anyone can
conjure up a construct that would show a harsh tactic
as effective in a specific case.

But this does not make the tactic right, legal,
morally correct, wise for our country's policy,
effective, or defensible, and such a hypothetical does
not begin to compensate for the damage done to our
country and its stance as a "shining city on a hill"
when our people stoop to the kinds of conduct that we
have condemned over history when practiced by the
Gestapo, the North Koreans, the Chinese, the
Islamists, or whomever.

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