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Friday, September 29, 2006

The Case for Waterboarding

By Vasko Kohlmayer

Discussing his recent compromise with the White House on detention and interrogation of captured terrorists, John McCain said on the Today show that ‘there will be no such thing as waterboarding…You will never see that again. We stood up and said that cannot be done.’

It is not easy to grasp the thinking of senator McCain and others who seek to ban this practice in the light of its immense value in our fight against terror. Take, for instance, the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed captured in Pakistan in March of 2003. One of the masterminds of 9/11 and al-Qaeda’s operational leader at the time, he possessed a wide-ranging knowledge of the network’s plans, logistics and personnel. Unwilling to share it voluntarily, he was subjected to forced interrogation. As resilient as he was and defiant, he held out until the interrogators decided to proceed with waterboarding. Two and a half minutes into the procedure, a broken Mohammed begged for relief. Stunned and shaken, his extensive confession amounted to nothing less than a treasure trove of priceless intelligence.

This case is unusual not in how quickly the waterboarding worked, but how long Mohammed was able to withstand it. Two and a half minutes is by all accounts a record of sorts, as most subjects usually break down inside a minute. CIA agents who undergo this procedure as part of their training rarely last more than 40 seconds. This despite the fact that they are in a friendly environment and know that death is not an option.

Although waterboarding is normally employed as the last resort and the frequency of its use kept secret, it has been made known that so far it has worked every time it has been tried. Thanks to its extraordinary efficacy, we have been able to obtain a great amount of critical intelligence that would have otherwise remained inaccessible. With the help of this information we have captured al-Qaeda operatives, stopped deadly plots, and saved many innocent lives. One of the fruits of Mohammed’s confession, to give one example, was the thwarting of a conspiracy to fly an airliner into the Library Tower, the tallest building in Los Angeles.

Given these facts, it is almost incomprehensible that there are some people in this country who insist that we relinquish this life-saving tool. Resting their objections on ethical grounds, they try to convince us that the procedure is morally unacceptable. But theirs is a misguided stance, since careful consideration shows that waterboarding is in fact one of the least injurious among interrogation techniques.

To see why this is so, it is enough to contrast it with the most common approach which involves a combination of sleep deprivation and cold exposure. Frequently requiring days and even weeks to break the captive’s spirit, it carries a real possibility of long-term physical and psychological damage. Worse still, it often fails to achieve the desired effect with the result that the captive is subjected to prolonged hardships, but we still end up without the information we so urgently need.

Waterboarding, on the other hand, is fleeting in duration with the actual discomfort lasting seldom more than a couple of minutes. And since a man can be safely deprived of oxygen for at least twice as long, there is almost no risk of long-term harm. The possibility of injury is further reduced by the fact that the procedure calls for no direct physical contact between the subject and his interrogators. Not even as much as pushing or chest slapping is required at any time, making waterboarding one of the safest and least confrontational among interrogation methods. Involving the lowest risk of long-term harm and the least amount of cumulative discomfort, it is also the most humane. Most importantly, it is the most effective.

While other interrogation procedures employ raw force, intimidation or long-term duress, waterboarding brings the terrorist face to face with that which he himself seeks to inflict upon his victims – the horror of dying. Viewed in this light, waterboarding may well be the most just form of interrogation for this kind of criminal, because it gives him a taste of his own evil. The difference is that his anguish is stopped the moment he expresses a desire for it to be so. This, tragically, is something which his victims would never be granted. While the terrorist turns his prey into mangled corpses, waterboarding gives him a chance to see another day without being so much as scathed by his momentary ordeal. But even as he goes on living, we have in our possession crucial intelligence that will save innocent lives.

It is widely agreed that the horrors of 9/11 took place primarily because of our intelligence gathering failures. The fact that at the time we had in our custody the 20th hijacker makes this tragedy all the more painful. Even though we suspected that Zacarias Moussaoui knew something big was in the works, we did not interrogate him aggressively enough to extract this information from him. Had we done so, things could have turned out differently. One of the primary objectives of waterboarding is to bring forth the kind of intelligence that will prevent tragedies like 9/11 from occurring again.

Rather than depriving our interrogators of this tool for wresting intelligence from recalcitrant terrorists, we must ensure that it is available whenever the need arises. Our government officials would do well to remember what the stakes are and whose protection they have been entrusted with. Once they do so, they cannot but recognize that our government not only is fully justified in utilizing this invaluable technique, but has a moral obligation to use it to save lives.

And as far as opponents of waterboarding are concerned, I have these questions to ask: Are a few moments of a terrorist’s discomfort more important than the lives of the innocents he seeks to destroy? Are two minutes of Moussaoui’s anguish worth more than the three thousand lives lost on 9/11? Does his momentary pain override a lifetime of hurt of those left behind?

If you can’t answer in the affirmative then hold your peace.

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