(photo: joebeone)

One would think that everything that could be written about waterboarding has been. Yet the press continues to repeat the lies of ex-Bush administration officials about this procedure, even after they have been thoroughly debunked. In this first of a short series of articles, we will look at the myth of the safety of waterboarding, which relies on misstatements about how the technique was used by the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE schools, whose purpose is to inoculate selected members of the services against foreign torture.

The Myth That We Do It

At a raucous July 19 appearance at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, John Yoo repeated his standard canard on waterboarding (from Brandon Shulleeta at the Charlottesville Daily Progress):

Yoo said of waterboarding, which simulates drowning: “We saw that 20,000 American military officers have undergone it as part of their training and almost none of them — or something like .001 percent — ever suffered anything from it. So based on that evidence we thought that’s not torture because it’s not physical harm and there’s no after effects.”

A week earlier, former Bush adviser Karl Rove, also on the talk circuit to hawk his new book, told the BBC that waterboarding was “in conformity with our international requirements and with US law.”

Mr Rove said US soldiers were subjected to waterboarding as a regular part of their training.

A less severe form of the technique was used on the three suspects interrogated at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, he added….

“Yes, I’m proud that we kept the world safer than it was, by the use of these techniques. They’re appropriate, they’re in conformity with our international requirements and with US law.”

Leaving aside Rove’s provocative statement about waterboarding suspects at Guantanamo (see a recent discussion at Emptywheel), a topic to which I will return in a future article, both Rove and Yoo claim that waterboarding U.S. military personnel was “regular” and caused no “physical harm,” “no after effects.”

Neither statement is true. In an article at Truthout earlier this month, it was revealed that leading members of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), the executive agency in charge of all the SERE schools, had fought with representatives of the San Diego North Island Navy SERE school in 2007 to ban waterboarding practice from the “POW Resistance Laboratory.”

The memo, obtained by Truthout, stated that the use of waterboarding left students “psychologically defeated” and impaired in the ability to develop “psychological hardiness.”

An internal JPRA memorandum stated (emphasis in original):

Although the Services have the latitude to develop their own training programs, the training, tactics, techniques, and procedures should be safe, effective, and promote a positive learning experience. Unfortunately, the current employment of the water board seems to be inconsistent with that philosophy…. Out of the four water boards we observed, the instructor did not stop watering students when they started tapping their toes, but instead continued watering until stopped by the watch officer or until the totally defeated student gave an answer through the water. In one case two full canteen cups were poured after the student started tapping…. Based on these concerns and the risks associated with using the water board, we strongly recommend that you discontinue using it.

Apparently, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), the executive agent for all the SERE schools prevailed, and in November 2007 the North Island school stopped waterboarding its students. This was announced without fanfare, and without comment, briefly and in passing in the Senate Armed Services Committee 2008 report, Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody (PDF), released last year (H/T bluebutterfly).

In the report, it was noted that during the period when JPRA was providing personnel for training interrogators from an “Other Government Agency” (most likely the CIA) in Nov. 2002, “waterboarding was only used by the U.S. Navy SERE school and its use was prohibited at the JPRA, Army, and Air Force SERE schools.” While the report also states that, “Until November 2007, waterboarding was also an approved training technique in the U.S. Navy SERE school,” nowhere in the report is the controversy over the safety or efficacy of the waterboard in SERE training mentioned.

Despite the fact that the use of waterboarding has been controversial within the services — and that it has been discontinued in all U.S. training programs since late 2007 — there is no indication from the press or politicians that statements otherwise by Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, John Yoo, and others are untrue. Furthermore, by failing to bring up the issue, Democrats and Republicans on, for instance, the Senate Armed Services Committee are — though they may not have realized it — silently complicit in the spread of a lie.

Next: OLC and Waterboarding