Waterboarding IS Torture


by C. Clark Kissinger
November 8, 2007


When we rolled up to the Justice Department in Washington, we didn’t know what to expect. But we knew that we had to be there. A Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Judge Michael Mukasey to be the next Attorney General would be the next morning, yet he was still refusing to say whether waterboarding is actually torture. We were there to demonstrate that it most definitely is torture.


I had come down from New York only a couple days before with the idea of putting on a very graphic demonstration. Getting on the phone, I quickly found people from a number of local groups who saw the urgency of doing this, including activists from the World Can’t Wait, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Catholic Worker, Code Pink, Montgomery Peace Action, and the Democracy Cell Project.


The most challenging problem came from the press trying to downplay waterboarding as simply “simulated drowning.” How could we demonstrate the awful seriousness waterboarding, yet not endanger our “victim”? Helpfully, Steve Lane from Montgomery Peace Action had already designed a face towel with a piece of plastic behind it to protect the victim from the full force of the water.


We had a chance to try it out Sunday morning when Senator Diane Feinstein was scheduled to be on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. Feinstein had just announced that she would be voting for Mukasey. Code Pink suggested that we all go down and demonstrate waterboarding for her. When Feinstein got out of her limo and headed for the studio doors, the Code Pink banner suddenly moved in front of her, cutting her off, at the same time revealing Steve Lane being held to a board with a gallon of water being poured in his face. Feinstein put on her best plastic smile and hurried on.


The next morning was our demonstration for the media. We announced the waterboarding for noon at 10th & Pennsylvania, right in front of the Justice Department and across the street from the FBI building. When we arrived, there was already quite a crowd of reporters, photographers, and TV cameras waiting for us.


I introduced the scene for media by pointing out that those publications that describe waterboarding as “simulated drowning” are practicing “simulated journalism.” Waterboarding IS drowning. Water is forced up the nose and mouth of the blindfolded victim in a controlled manner. Any attempt to breathe only leads to inspiring more water. The sensation of asphyxiation induces terror: “what if the torturers don’t stop?”


Waterboarding is, of course, part of an arsenal of U.S. psychological torture methods that include sensory deprivation, stress positions, extreme cold, loud incessant music, sleep deprivation, and disorientation through isolation and the manipulation of meal times, sleep, and light. Research studies commissioned by the U.S. government found psychological torture to be more effective at terrorizing subjects than physical torture -- plus it leaves no scars. But no form of torture is effective at obtaining truthful information. It can only force people to say whatever the torturer wants said.


As a matter of fact, all students at the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego are required to undergo waterboarding and become completely familiar with this technique. Yet to promote “plausible deniability” for the military, the U.S. government regularly employs “private contractors” or CIA personnel to do this dirty work. The government’s other ploy to deny responsibility is “special rendition,” where individuals are shipped to other countries to be tortured in secret at the request of the Bush regime.


The sun was shining brightly and video cameras were trained on the scene as four anti-torture activists, dressed as “civilian contractors,” dragged the victim forward. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, a 26-year-old Iranian-American actor, had bravely agreed to be the victim. He is dressed in an orange jump suit, his hands tightly bound with duct tape.


“Give us the names!” screams Marietta, a local university drama teacher in real life.


“I don’t have any names. I was in Syria at a conference,” Maboud stammers.


“We can do this the easy way; we can do it the hard way. . . OK, hard way.”


Maboud is grabbed from where he is sitting and forced onto an inclined board, head down, with the towel thrown over his face. “Give us the names!” the interrogator screams as water is poured onto the towel. Although Maboud is protected from the full force of the water by the piece of plastic behind the towel, some water still gets past and runs up his nose. It begins getting very real.


After the first gallon, Maboud is pulled up. “You like that? You like that? That was the hard way. You want to breathe? Give us the names!” the interrogator again demands. Maboud can only cough and gasp for air. Rudely he is push back down on the board and given another gallon of water in the face.


At the end of the demonstration, Maboud is coughing and shaken, his hands are quivering. He has, in fact, been partially drowned, much like a swimmer pulled from the surf by a life guard. I pick up the towel and show the reporters the plastic behind the towel. “Had this not been there, this man would be unconscious or worse.”


“It’s only the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had,” Maboud tells reporters. “Although it was a ‘controlled environment,’ when water goes into your lungs, you want to scream and you can’t because you know as soon as you do you’re going to choke. It’s forced drowning. That’s what it is.”


“How do we know you’re not just acting?” says the smart aleck from Fox News. Maboud looks at him with withering disgust. He explains how he prepared himself by studying everything he could find about waterboarding. It was perfectly clear to everyone present that this was not play acting.


With so much media assembled, it was also important to drive home some more points: “Waterboarding is not an ‘enhanced interrogation technique,’ it’s torture. Waterboarding is illegal under both international and domestic law. The U.S. is a signatory of the International Convention Against Torture, and there is a domestic anti-torture law,” I pointed out. “Yet Mukasey says that if Congress will only pass a new law explicitly outlawing waterboarding, he will enforce it. That’s like saying, if Congress will only pass a new law, then I will deign to enforce the existing law!”


The media also tells us that Mukasey won’t call this torture because that might cause legal problems for those who have authorized it. “After World War II, United States prosecuted as war criminals the Japanese officers responsible for waterboarding U.S. prisoners of war. Since when is retroactive immunity provided for war criminals?” I ask the reporters.


By evening, video of the demonstration of waterboarding is all over the internet. Associated Press put out a major story with video, and it is on web pages from the Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times, as well as printed in a number of papers. A few nights later it was shown on the PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer


Yet the next morning, two Democratic Senators, Feinstein and Schumer, provide the key votes to speed Bush’s nominee Mukasey for chief law enforcement officer of the land on to the full Senate -- the same man who will not acknowledge that waterboarding is torture.


When President Bush says “the U.S. does not torture,” he is lying. This in turn presents a challenge to all of us, for torture plus silence equals complicity. We must put a stop to this whole fascist direction. The open practice of torture is yet one more reason why this hateful Bush regime must be driven from office and its whole program repudiated by millions.