Waterboarding: Hiding the Evidence of a Sordid History


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“A few days after the New York Times reported [front page December 7, 2007] that in 2005 the CIA destroyed at least two videotapes that documented its use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, the Washington Post revealed the CIA in 2002 informed Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and other top legislators about waterboarding. Some politicians urged the CIA on — and all kept the secret….”

Author: William Loren Katz, author of 40 U.S. history books, and affiliated with New York University since 1973
Published in: Oregon Herald
Date: December 17, 2007

Read the full article:
Waterboarding: Hiding the Evidence of a Sordid History
(733 words)
by William Loren Katz
A few days after the New York Times reported [front page December 7, 2007] that in 2005 the CIA destroyed at least two videotapes that documented its use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, the Washington Post revealed the CIA in 2002 informed Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and other top legislators about waterboarding. Some politicians urged the CIA on — and all kept the secret. Waterboarding, official denial that it constitutes torture, and concealment of its use, share a long history.
President George Bush has admitted the United States used “waterboarding” while denying that it’s a form of torture, and has repeatedly stated, “America does not torture.” In an October 2006 radio interview on Fargo, North Dakota’s WDAY, Vice President Dick Cheney told radio host Scott Hennen that waterboarding is “a very important tool that we’ve had,” insisted “We need to continue that,” and called it no more than “dunking” someone under water. He also added that the United States does not torture.
For five centuries, waterboarding has been used as torture in several variations. The method that gives the torture its name involves strapping the captive to a board and repeatedly pushing his head into a tub of water until his lungs fill and he nearly drowns. Alternatively, a captive is hooded and strapped to a tilted chair while buckets of water are poured into his mouth. Both experiences are unbearable for more than a few seconds, as anyone could attest who has ever tried to breathe underwater. The Inquisition in the late 1400s used water torture to punish accused heretics. In the early 1500s, it was imported to the New World, again to root out heresy. Later it reappeared in Massachusetts, where it was used on women who might be witches.
Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan routinely used waterboarding during World War II. United States and South Vietnamese forces embraced the practice during the Vietnam war, until the U.S. Army outlawed it. Perhaps the most extensive documentation of its use exists in the records of the U.S. invasion and occupation of the Philippines.
In 1898, when U.S. naval forces landed in Manila to end Spain’s colonial rule, unexpectedly they encountered another force they would have to reckon with: a 40,000-strong Filipino liberation army, commanded by General Emilio Aguinaldo. As armed Filipino resistance tied the newcomers down for 12 years, the U.S. occupation repeatedly committed mass atrocities, rationalized in the U.S. media as appropriate treatment for Malay “savages,” with a common method of interrogating captives being what was called “the water cure.” (This torture may have been used first in 1901 by U.S. General Frederick Funston to capture Aguinaldo. Funston was also noted for his extreme rhetoric in condemning anti-war protestors – he urged that they should be dragged from their homes and lynched.)
Based on an examination of Congressional testimony, soldiers’ letters, court martial proceedings and newspaper accounts, Professor Stuart C. Miller brings this story to light in his study of the occupation, Benevolent Assimilation. The “water cure” became front-page news when U.S. Governor of the Philippines William Howard Taft testified before Congress under oath that the “so-called water cure” was used “on some occasions to extract information.” Taft’s comment was bolstered by a soldier’s admission in a private letter that he had used the water cure on 160 people and only 26 had survived. Publicly President Teddy Roosevelt did not mention the water cure, but he privately wrote a friend it was “an old Filipino method of mild torture” but when Americans administered it “nobody was seriously damaged.”
In an article, “The ‘Water Cure’ from a Missionary Point of View,” Reverend Homer Stunz said the technique was not torture since the victim could stop it any time by providing the information his interrogators sought. Besides, he claimed, it was only applied to “spies.” Stunz also justified such instances of barbarity by pointing to the stressful conditions faced by U.S. soldiers “in lonely and remote bamboo jungles.”
Mark Twain, a leading anti-war voice, wrote of the water cure: “Funston’s example has bred many imitators, and many ghastly additions to our history: the torturing of Filipinos by the awful ‘water-cure,’ for instance, to make them confess — what? Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless.”

William Loren Katz, author of 40 U.S. history books, affiliated with New York University since 1973. See his website. This essay draws from his book, “The Cruel Years: American Voices at the Dawn of the 20th Century” [Beacon Press, 2003] and even more heavily from Stuart Creighton Miller, “Benevolent Assimilation” [Yale University Press, 1982]