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New Report: DoD Used Water Torture, Hid Behind “Waterboarding” Definition

A new examination of waterboarding and other “water treatment” torture practices by the Department of Defense, published today at Truthout, seriously calls into question the accepted narrative around waterboarding by the U.S. government, as when Donald Rumsfeld wrote, “To my knowledge, no US military personnel involved in interrogations waterboarded any detainees, not at Guantanamo Bay, or anywhere else in the world.”

Up until now, it’s been accepted that only the CIA waterboarded detainees at black sites in the “war on terror,” and only three prisoners at that. But a new investigation of available materials from Congress, Inspector General reports, first-hand and second-hand accounts in the press, as well as other documentary evidence, shows that use of waterboarding-style torture was likely used widely by U.S. forces, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Guantanamo.

Is it not waterboarding just because you are forcefully held down and drowned, and not strapped to a board? From testimony from former Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes, via Jeremy Scahill in an article from 2009:

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.

Or what about this, from a 2008 legal filing by Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of former Guantanamo prisoner Djamel Ameziane?

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.”

The above quotes are only a few selections from the larger Truthout investigation, which lays out the entire story. For instance, another Guantanamo detainee, Mustafa Ait Idr, describes being suffocated via application of water in much the same manner as Ameziane. In particular, the Truthout story describes how water torture via dunking or immersion was contemplated or used as early as the torture of Mohammed Al Qahtani, and later at a Special Forces interrogation site in Iraq.

In sum, the use of water torture and waterboarding or quasi-waterboarding can only represent a pattern of such kinds of torture, which has been kept out of the public eye through a combination of secrecy, and artfully framing the issue around a definition of waterboarding that is meant to exclude examination of the full use of such water-drowning torture.

What this investigation into the different instances of water torture by DoD proves is that the public discussion of waterboarding has been consciously limited by the government, which has hidden behind a definition of waterboarding that excludes the other, closely-related forms of torture it used.

Indeed, in the Army Field Manual on interrogations, which supposedly forbids torture (its Appendix M does allow for use of isolation, sleep deprivation and forms of sensory deprivation), exclusion of “prohibited actions” or techniques of torture include “waterboarding.” But interestingly — and in a telling unconscious admission that the prohibition only pertains to a very particular form of the technique — it is the only prohibited action that is addressed in quotation marks in the manual. That tells me that DoD was hiding behind a legalistic feint, and the evidence this is so is what I address in my Truthout article.

I’m going to end this post with a selection from the Congressional testimony of another DoD detainee, Murat Kurnaz, who told a Congressional committee about his experience with the “water treatment.”

Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee commented on Kurnaz’s testimony, “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.”

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.