In the controversy over whether torture, especially waterboarding, was used to gather information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Fox News’ Sean Hannity recently that “no one was waterboarded at Guantanamo by the US military. In fact, no one was waterboarded at Guantanamo, period.”
In his memoir, “Known and Unknown,” Rumsfeld maintained, “To my knowledge, no US military personnel involved in interrogations waterboarded any detainees,not at Guantanamo or anywhere else in the world.” But as we shall see, Rumsfeld was either lying outright, or artfully twisting the truth.
Others have insisted as well that the military never waterboarded anyone. Law and national security writer Benjamin Wittes wrote in The New Republic last year that “the military, unlike the CIA, never waterboarded anybody.” Harper’s columnist Scott Horton also noted last year, “There is no documentation yet of waterboarding at Gitmo, but the case book is far from closed on that score, too.”
Yet, though not widely reported and scattered among various articles and reports on detainee treatment by the military, including first-person accounts, there are a number of stories of forced water choking or drowning, both at Guantanamo and other US military sites.
In little-known testimony in May 2008 before Congress, former Guantanamo detainee Murat Kurnaz testified he endured a form of simulated drowning. In his testimony before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Kurnaz said that under US military captivity at Khadahar, Afghanistan, prior to his transfer to Guantanamo, his head was “dunked under water to simulate drowning.”
Asked by Republican Congressman Rohrabacher if he hadn’t then been waterboarded, Kurnaz responded, “No, it’s not waterboarding. It’s called ‘water treatment.’ There was a bucket of water.”
ROHRABACHER: Was a cloth put over your face and you were put on a board?
KURNAZ: There was a bucket of water. And they stick my head in it and at the same time, punch me into my stomach.
Rohrabacher reportedly commented, “The CIA is claiming that only three people have been waterboarded. And this may be a loophole that they’re suggesting that’s not ‘waterboarding.'”
According to a report on Kurnaz’s testimony at the time by The Christian Science Monitor, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon replied to the torture charges: “The abuses Mr. Kurnaz alleges are not only unsubstantiated and implausible, they are simply outlandish.”
Whether implausible or not, waterboarding was one of a number of “counter-resistance techniques” requested for use at Guantanamo by Maj. Gen. Mike Dunleavy, commander of Task Force 170. In an October 2002 memo from Dunleavy’s intelligence chief requesting use of a number of techniques, including sensory deprivation, isolation, stress positions, forced nudity and death threats, there was also a proposal for “Use of a wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of suffocation.”
In a follow-up memo approving most, but not all of the requested techniques, Department of Defense (DoD) general counsel William J. Haynes II said of the “wet towel” and other so-called “aggressive” “Category III” techniques, “While all Category III techniques may be legally available, we believe that, as a matter of policy, a blanket approval of Category III techniques is not warranted at this time.” (Emphasis added.)
Water Torture at Guantanamo
Evidence regarding waterboarding or other forms of water torture by suffocation or choking at Guantanamo has been reported, but this article is the first collection of the various reports in one place.
Last April, a report by two doctors who were allowed to examine “medical records and relevant case files … of nine individuals for evidence of torture and ill treatment,” found at least one case of “near asphyxiation from water (i.e., hose forced into the detainee’s mouth)” and another case where a detainee’s head was forced into a toilet.
The report, by doctors Vincent Iacopino and Stephen N. Xenakis, was published at PLoS Medicine. Dr. Xenakis is also a retired brigadier general in the Army, who has worked as a medical consultant on a number of Guantanamo legal cases.
Additionally, accusations of military waterboarding turned up in a Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) report on “FBI Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations” that was released at almost the same time as Kurnaz’s testimony (May 2008). The IG noted that the chief of the FBI’s Military Liaison and Detainee Unit at Guantanamo told DoD Assistant Attorney General Dave Nahmias, “one of the planned or actual techniques used on [purported 9/11 would-be hijacker, Mohammed] Al Qahtani was simulated drowning.”
In fact, the military admits the use of pouring water over al Qahtani’s head, as is discussed below.
At another point in the report, the IG describes one FBI agent who “once heard a discussion at GTMO when someone mentioned using water as an interrogation tool and someone else in the group said, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen that.'” According to the IG report, no FBI agent actually reported seeing waterboarding or water torture him or herself.
Whether or not waterboarding was observed by FBI agents at Guantanamo, we know from the minutes of a “Counter-resistance Strategy meeting” at Guantanamo on October 22, 2002, that waterboarding (called the “wet towel” technique) was discussed (see Tab 7 at link). The meeting included legal officials from the CIA, DIA, the Guantanamo intelligence chief, as well as members of the Guantanamo Behavioral Science Consulting Team (BSCT).
At one point, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, the Staff Judge Advocate at Guantanamo asked whether SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) employed “the ‘wet towel’ technique.” Jonathan Fredman, then chief counsel to the CIA’s counter-terrorism center, replied:
“If a well-trained individual is used to perform [sic] this technique it can feel like you’re drowning. The lymphatic system will react as if you’re suffocating, but your body will not cease to function. It is very effective to identify phobias and use them (ie, insects, snakes, claustrophobia). The level of resistance is directly related to person’s experience.”
At this point, a BSCT psychiatrist noted, “Whether or not significant stress occurs lies in the eye of the beholder. The burden of proof is the big issue.” Fredman replied, “These techniques need involvement from interrogators, psych, medical, legal, etc.”
Fredman continued “The CIA makes the call internally on most of the types of techniques found in the BSCT paper and this discussion.” In a reference to the approvals for waterboarding and other techniques given the CIA by Office of Legal Counsel memos a few months before, he added, “Significantly harsh techniques are approved through the DOJ.” There was no indication in the minutes from the meeting that waterboarding was not allowed for Defense Department use.
Waterboarding of Mohammed al Qahtani
Mohammed al Qahtani was a Saudi Arabian citizen brought to Guantanamo in early 2002. Ostensibly believed to be a part of the 9/11 plot, when interrogators became frustrated at their inability to get information out of him, or force his compliance, they turned to methods of interrogation that the Guantanamo Convening Authority Susan Crawford would later herself conclude amounted to torture.
By November 2002, al Qahtani had become the “first subject of a Special Interrogation Plan,” which relied heavily on the military’s SERE torture school techniques, including isolation, stress positions, sexual humiliation and apparently, a form of waterboarding. SERE was created to provide US military personnel with training to resist torture.
Even years before Crawford’s admission, DoD’s Schmidt-Furlow report, looking at early allegations of detainee abuse, concluded that “the creative, aggressive and persistent interrogation of the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan [al Qahtani] resulted in the cumulative effect being degrading and abusive treatment.” No one has ever been charged for such crimes committed against this or any other Guantanamo detainee.
The Schmidt-Furlow report details the use of water torture on al Qahtani, an aspect of his torture that has been little reported:
On seventeen occasions, between 13 Dec 02 and 14 Jan 03, interrogators, during interrogations, poured water over the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan head….
There is evidence that the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan regularly had water poured on his head. The interrogation logs indicate that this was done as a control measure only.
On December 23, 2002, a log selection describes how interrogators hung pictures of swimsuit models around al Qahtani’s neck. Then the lead interrogator “pulled pictures of swimsuit models off detainee and told him the test of his ability to answer questions would begin. Detainee refused to answer and finally stated that he would after [the] lead [interrogator] poured water over detainees [sic] head and was told he would be subjected to this treatment day after day. Detainee was told to think about his decision to answer questions.”
The day before, when al Qahtani had refused to look at “fitness photos,” saying it was against his religion, interrogators had “poured a 24 oz bottle of water over detainee’s head.” The log notes dryly, “Detainee then began to look at photos.”
In their investigation of detainee abuse, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) noted in a 2008 report that the Navy limited waterboard demonstrations to two pints (32 oz.) of water. A January 13, 2003, memo, described in the SASC report, underreported how much water was poured over Qahtani, saying that “up to eight ounces of water” was poured over Qahtani’s head as a “method of asserting control” when Khatani exhibited ”undesired behavior.”
The SASC report also said that the interrogation plan for another Guantanamo detainee, Mohamadou Walid Slahi, included the practice of pouring water over Slahi’s head to “enforce control” and “keep [him] awake.”
Three More Guantanamo Detainees Report Suffocation by Drowning
Besides Kurnaz and al Qahtani, at least three other detainees have reported being tortured at Guantanamo by application of water meant to cause suffocation, choking or the sensation of drowning.
A 2009 article by Jeremy Scahill outlined the torture and abuse endured by former Guantanamo detainee and British resident Omar Deghayes. Scahill mentions two incidents where the Immediate Reaction Force (IRF, sometimes called the Emergency Reaction Force, or ERF) used forms of water torture on Deghayes. In one case, the detainee was shackled, his head put into a toilet. The IRF team “pressed his face into the water. They repeatedly flushed it.”
The IRF or ERF team also came into Deghayes cell on another occasion and conducted a simulated or partial drowning.
The ERF team came into the cell with a water hose under very high pressure. [Deghayes] was totally shackled and they would hold his head fixed still. They would force water up his nose until he was suffocating and would scream for them to stop. This was done with medical staff present and they would join in.
According to Scahill, the IRF team conducted this form of waterboarding three times on Deghayes. Note that the presence of medical staff is consistent with the use of medical personnel under CIA descriptions of how they conducted waterboarding.
Another example of water torture involving Guantanamo guards appears in a document related to the case of Djamel Ameziane, an Algerian Berber who has been held at Guantanamo for over eight years, despite the fact he never received military or terrorist training, nor fought against the US. According to 2008 legal filing for Ameziane by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR):
In another violent incident, guards entered his cell and forced him to the floor, kneeing him in the back and ribs and slamming his head against the floor, turning it left and right. The bashing dislocated Mr. Ameziane’s jaw, from which he still suffers. In the same episode, guards sprayed cayenne pepper all over his body and then hosed him down with water to accentuate the effect of the pepper spray and make his skin burn. They then held his head back and placed a water hose between his nose and mouth, running it for several minutes over his face and suffocating him, an operation they repeated several times. Mr. Ameziane writes, “I had the impression that my head was sinking in water. I still have psychological injuries, up to this day. Simply thinking of it gives me the chills.” [Emphasis added.]
In March 2008, six Guantanamo detainees filed suit against Bosnia and Herzegovina in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for failure “for many years to take any steps to negotiate and secure the men’s release from Guantanamo.” One of the men, Mustafa Ait Idr, who had been rendered to Guantanamo and “taken from his pregnant wife in violation of a Bosnian court order to free him,” also reported use of water torture in a manner remarkably similar to that of Ameziane.
A CCR report on “Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment of Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” said that on one occasion prison guards demanded to search Idr’s cell. Idr cooperated, but they came in, sprayed him in the face with a chemical irritant and put him into restraints.
According to the CCR report, “Guards then slammed him head first into the cell floor, lowered him, face-first into the toilet and flushed the toilet – submerging his head. He was then carried outside and thrown onto the crushed stones that surround the cells. While he was down on the ground, his assailants stuffed a hose in his mouth and forced water down his throat.” As a result, Idr’s face was paralyzed for several months.
Other threats to use waterboarding on DoD prisoners, or to rendition detainees for water torture, are also on record. According to journalist Robert Windrem in a 2009 story at The Daily Beast, then Vice President Dick Cheney requested the waterboarding of Muhammed Khudayr al-Dulaymi, the head of the M-14 section of Mukhabarat. According to the article, the official in charge of interrogations of Iraqi officials at the time, Charles Duelfer, declined the request.
According to the SASC detainee report, the lead agency for SERE, Joint Forces Personnel Agency, constructed a CONOP (Concept of Operations) plan for use at a Special Mission Unit Task Force interrogation center in Iraq. The CONOP recommended use of the “water board.” Military legal figures reportedly objected to that and other techniques, but it is not known whether Special Forces in Iraq used waterboarding or other water torture techniques and the SASC report does not enlighten us on that point.
In another case, former Italian resident and Guantanamo detainee, Tunisian-born Saleh Sassi, reported that in late 2002, Tunisian agents came to Guantanamo and interrogated him. They “left no doubt about what awaited ex-Guantanamo inmates back in Tunisia: ‘water torture in the barrel’ and other horrors.” Sassi was released and sent to Albania in 2010.
Finally, the DOJ IG report on FBI interrogations referenced earlier describes how an Abu Ghraib prisoner, Saleh Muklef Saleh, was restrained and had cold water poured over him on more than one occasion. One time, according to Saleh’s own testimony, “They gave me one or two bottles of water and they asked me to drink it while I was hungry and they forced me to drink it and I did and I felt vomiting, then they ordered me to drink again and they were looking at me and laughing” (pp. 279-280).
Back in 2008, during the Congressional meeting where Murat Kurnaz testified to the use of water torture upon him, Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee commented, “It seems that we have a new definition … If you were wedded to the language of waterboarding, now we have new language called ‘water treatment,’ which may bear on being torture as well.”
To date, there has been no investigation that specifically has looked at the use of types of water torture, including waterboarding or water treatment, on detainees. The military’s current Army Field Manual on interrogation forbids the use of “waterboarding.” It is the only “prohibited action” term that is described with quotation marks around it.
A Human Rights Watch report issued on July 12 called for President Barack Obama “to order a criminal investigation into allegations of detainee abuse authorized by former President George W. Bush and other senior officials.”
Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist living in Northern California and a regular contributor to Truthout, blogs about civil liberties and issues revolving around the US government’s torture program at The Dissenter. He can be reached at sfpsych at gmail dot com. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @Jeff_Kaye