Update at bottom: Former UK spy chief says US 'misled' allies on torture
The waterboarding sessions that terrorist suspects were subjected to during the Bush administration were "administered with meticulous cruelty" and were in part designed so that detainees acted as "guinea pigs" for future interrogation sessions, says an exhaustive new report.
The report also shows that the interrogation methods were so harsh that some detainees "simply gave up and tried to let themselves drown."
Drawing on numerous documents about the CIA's torture program that have been released over the past year, Mark Benjamin at Salon.com reports that interrogators went to extreme lengths to ensure that detainees were pushed to their physical limits, including feeding the detainees a liquid diet to make them more capable of ingesting large quantities of water, and replacing their water with a saline solution that would keep detainees from dying when they ingested too much water.
[T]he CIA forced such massive quantities of water into the mouths and noses of detainees, prisoners inevitably swallowed huge amounts of liquid – enough to conceivably kill them from hyponatremia, a rare but deadly condition in which ingesting enormous quantities of water results in a dangerously low concentration of sodium in the blood.
Benjamin notes that, according to a leaked 2007 report from the Red Cross, doctors were present at the sessions and measured detainees' blood oxygen levels, allowing interrogators to bring detainees "close to death -- but help them from crossing the line."
Benjamin reports that the waterboarding sessions were "so excruciating" that some detainees simply decided not to struggle and let themselves drown.
"In our limited experience, extensive sustained use of the waterboard can introduce new risks," the article quotes the CIA's Office of Medical Services in a 2003 memo. "Most seriously, for reasons of physical fatigue or psychological resignation, the subject may simply give up, allowing excessive filling of the airways and loss of consciousness."
That same memo "seems to say that the detainees subjected to waterboarding were also guinea pigs," Benjamin reports. He cites the last paragraph of that report, which states that "[i]n order to best inform future medical judgments and recommendations, it is important that every application of the waterboard be thoroughly documented...."
Spencer Ackerman at the Washington Independent reports that the details of waterboarding revealed in recently released documents back up the claims of Abu Zubaydah, the high-profile terror suspect who was waterboarded 183 times in one month.
"It’s one thing for a terrorist to testify to ill treatment," Ackerman writes. "It’s another for CIA documentation to corroborate his account. Clearly Abu Zubaydah was drowned. As Benjamin observes, this is not the “dunking” that Dick Cheney describes. Whatever apologists like Marc Thiessen might say, the people who performed this torture knew full well that they were torturing people like Abu Zubaydah."
Benjamin describes the "meticulous cruelty" with which the waterboarding program was carried out.
The agency used a gurney "specially designed" to tilt backwards at a perfect angle to maximize the water entering the prisoner's nose and mouth, intensifying the sense of choking – and to be lifted upright quickly in the event that a prisoner stopped breathing...
Interrogators were instructed to start pouring water right after a detainee exhaled, to ensure he inhaled water, not air, in his next breath. They could use their hands to "dam the runoff" and prevent water from spilling out of a detainee's mouth. They were allowed six separate 40-second "applications" of liquid in each two-hour session – and could dump water over a detainee's nose and mouth for a total of 12 minutes a day. Finally, to keep detainees alive even if they inhaled their own vomit during a session – a not-uncommon side effect of waterboarding – the prisoners were kept on a liquid diet. The agency recommended Ensure Plus.
"The so-called science here is a total departure from any ethics or any legitimate purpose," the article quotes Dr. Scott Allen of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. "They are saying, ‘This is how risky and harmful the procedure is, but we are still going to do it.' It just sounds like lunacy. ... This fine-tuning of torture is unethical, incompetent and a disgrace to medicine."
Many details of the waterboarding program -- from its controversial green-lighting by White House lawyers to its execution -- have been made public through document releases over the past year. Most recently, a report from the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility found that the torture memo authors -- lawyers Jay Bybee and John Yoo -- showed "poor conduct" in sanctioning the practice, but should avoid legal responsibility because their behavior didn't rise to a violation of professional obligations.
That report unveiled a number of interesting details about the enhanced interrogation program, including evidence that the psychologists involved in designing the interrogations wanted to use mock burials to intimidate detainees.
The former head of MI5, Britain's spy agency, says the United States misled its closest ally in the post-9/11 era about its torture practices, and kept the agency in the dark about "enhanced interrogation" practices such as waterboarding.
The "Americans were very keen to conceal from us what was happening, as they were from many of their own people," Eliza Manningham-Buller told a question-and-answer session at Britain's Parliament Tuesday, as quoted by the Associated Press.
Manningham-Buller, who served as head of MI5 from 2002 to 2007, during most of the period in which the Bush administration was engaged in torture practices, said her lack of knowledge about the waterboarding program caused her to be confused about the results the US was getting in its interrogations of terrorism suspects. The AP reports:
Manningham-Buller said that in 2002 or 2003 she questioned how the U.S. was able to supply Britain with intelligence gleaned from Sheikh Mohammed.
"I said to my staff, 'Why is he talking?' because our experience of Irish prisoners, Irish terrorists, was that they never said anything," she said.
"They said, well, the Americans say he is very proud of his achievements when questioned about it. It wasn't actually until after I retired that I read that, in fact, he had been water boarded 160 times," Manningham-Buller said.