In his recently published memoirs called “Decision Points,” and in interviews publicizing those memoirs, former U.S. President George W. Bush makes it clear his stand on what many consider a basic human rights violation: the use of waterboarding as a torture technique. With characteristic insouciance, Bush expresses his unqualified support for torture.
Waterboarding is one of the most cruel torture techniques, used in many countries worldwide. The technique has been practiced, among others, by the Spanish Inquisition and by French paratroopers in Algeria. It has been also used by American soldiers in Vietnam and by the British Army in Northern Ireland.
During waterboarding, the subject is immobilized keeping his back with the head inclined downward. Water is then poured over the face and then it goes into breathing passages and triggers a reflex causing the subject to experience the sensation of drowning. CIA officers who volunteered to experience the technique have lasted an average of 14 seconds before capitulating.
Although there is some discrepancy on the legality on the use of this technique, there is no discrepancy on its consequences. “Waterboarding or mock drowning, where a prisoner is bound to an inclined board and water is poured over his face, inducing a terrifying fear of drowning clearly can result in immediate and long-term health consequences. As the prisoner gags and chokes, the terror of imminent death is pervasive, with all the physiological and psychological responses expected, including an intense stress response, manifested by tachycardia (rapid heart beat) and gasping for breath.
There is a real risk of death from actually drowning or suffering a heart attack or damage to the lungs from inhalation of water. Long-term effects include panic attacks, depression and PTSD,” declared Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, at the Hearing on U.S. Interrogation Policy and Executive Order 13440, to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
There are also questions about the effectiveness of waterboarding as a torture technique. “It is bad interrogation. I mean you can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture is bad enough,” said former CIA officer Robert Baer. Several other former CIA officers have the same point of view.
Former President George W. Bush and officials in his administration such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Attorney General John Ashcroft have stated, since leaving office, that they don’t consider waterboarding to be torture. However, Sen. John McCain, who has some personal experience on this issue, has stated unequivocally that he considers waterboarding to be torture.
“I would have no problems with describing this practice as falling under the prohibition for torture,” stated Louise Arbour, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. And she also stated that violators of the U.N. Convention Against Torture should be prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Bush insists in his book that waterboarding is not torture, but it is just one of a number of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This point of view is not shared by officials within the British government, who agree with U.S. President Barack Obama that water boarding constitutes torture, and has banned the used of such practice.
Bush said that waterboarding is “highly effective” and added that its use provided “large amounts of information.” Although Bush has no regrets in having authorized the use of torture, Douglas Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, declared, “This cavalier attitude by the president who authorized torture in violation of U.S. and international law not only damages our nation’s credibility throughout the world, but also discourages global cooperation to combat terrorism.”
Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is an award-winning writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.