Does waterboarding work? Seven questions about the controversial interrogation technique

In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, President Trump was asked about waterboarding. He said he had asked people at the highest level of intelligence, “ ‘Does it work? Does torture work?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ ” Trump went on to say, “Do I feel it works? Absolutely, I feel it works.”

Trump nonetheless said he would rely on the advice of his defense secretary, James Mattis, and CIA director, Mike Pompeo, before he would bring back waterboarding. Moreover, it is now illegal under U.S. law to waterboard any suspect. And Mattis and Pompeo have both said they would oppose its reintroduction at an interrogation method used by the U.S. government.

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Here are the answers to basic questions about waterboarding and its history:

What is waterboarding?

Waterboarding is an enhanced interrogation technique that simulates the feeling of being drowned. A person is strapped to a board with the upper part of his body on a downward incline. Then, a cloth is placed over the person’s mouth, and water is poured over his face, causing the person to have difficulty breathing and to feel as if his lungs are filling with water. CIA medical staff determined that the process was dangerous enough that they required resuscitation and medical equipment to be placed in interrogation rooms where waterboarding took place. On at least once occasion, a detainee required resuscitation.

When was it first used?

According to historians, waterboarding dates to the Middle Ages and has been a form of torture in many conflicts. Japanese soldiers used it on American prisoners of war in World War II, and U.S. soldiers used it when interrogating captured North Vietnamese soldiers. U.S. military personnel are still trained on SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) techniques and subjected to waterboarding in training situations to help them resist if they are captured.

How did it come back into use by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks?

The CIA hired two former military psychologists after 9/11 to assist in the interrogation of high-value al-Qaeda detainees held at secret CIA prisons overseas. The psychologists, James E. Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, helped develop an escalating series of enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, for the agency to use on terrorism suspects.

Which terrorist suspects have been waterboarded and where?

Three CIA detainees were waterboarded after 9/11. Abu Zubaydah, an alleged al-Qaeda facilitator, was the first detainee to be waterboarded. In 2002, while being held at the CIA black site in Thailand, Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding 83 times. Abd Al-Rahim al-Nashiri, an al-Qaeda operative accused of involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, was waterboarded two times in 2002 at the CIA black site in Thailand. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being one of the main planners of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times in the course of one month after his capture in 2003. Zubaydah, Nashiri and Mohammed are all currently held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where Nashiri and Mohammed have been charged with war crimes in military commissions.

Did the waterboarding of terrorist suspects lead to actionable intelligence?

Opinions on the efficacy of torture vary and are the subject of intense and emotional debate. After an exhaustive study the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded the CIA’s use of torture and other harsh interrogation techniques did not produce unique, critical intelligence that had not been replicated elsewhere or obtained through other means. In response, senior current and former CIA officials said the agency’s interrogation program, including the use of waterboarding, had produced actionable intelligence that among other things led to the identification of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Is it still legal?

No. It is prohibited under federal law. Former President Obama banned the use of torture as an interrogation technique in 2009. That ban was later codified in law by Congress. The Army Field Manual, which now guides interrogations by U.S. officials overseas, prohibits “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Waterboarding is one of eight techniques of interrogation expressly prohibited from being used in the field.

What have Trump’s Cabinet nominees said about waterboarding?

During his Senate confirmation hearing, CIA director Mike Pompeo said he would “absolutely not” restart the use of waterboarding. He added that he could not “imagine that I would be asked that by the president. Defense Secretary James Mattis told then President-elect Donald Trump at a meeting in November that he did not find the technique of waterboarding to be useful. Mattis told Trump, “I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I do better with that than I do with torture,” according to an interview with the New York Times.

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