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Is Waterboarding Torture or Just "Uncomfortable"? Ask the Candidates

By   /  November 29, 2011  /  No Comments

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As the days leading up to the Republican nomination in the 2012 presidential election begin to dwindle, the number of Republican debates only continues to rise. While the CNN Republican National Security debate scheduled for Tuesday, November 22 is sure to raise some interesting insights into the candidates’ views on securing our nation, the debate in South Carolina on November 12 also led to discussion of some important national security issues. One in particular? The use of waterboarding.

(Waterboarding is the process in which an individual is held captive and immobilized while another pours water over his or her face. The process effectively causes the individual to experience the sensation of drowning.)

When a question regarding the use of waterboarding was posed at Saturday’s debate, candidates Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann expressed their approval for the practice, saying that they would reinstate its use (President Obama banned the practice in 2009). Cain, stating that he did “not agree with torture, period”, responded that he did not see waterboarding as torture, but rather as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Bachmann spoke more boldly, stating that if she were president, she would be “willing to use waterboarding.” She went on to state she thought the technique was “very effective in getting information for our country” and that by banning the practice, President Obama was “allowing the ACLU to run the CIA.” Not to be outdone, Perry stated that he would defend waterboarding and other techniques “until the day I die.” Mitt Romney, while staying silent on the issue during the debate, does not believe the practice is torture, according to his aides. However, Romney’s aides would not detail whether he would employ the “enhanced interrogation techniques” if taking office. Although Cain, Bachmann, and Perry’s aggressive rhetoric for the use of waterboarding drew great applause on Saturday night, in the days that followed, many have questioned the candidates’ responses.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which represents approximately 75% of the United Nations member states (including the United States), defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person…” Thus, legally speaking, whether waterboarding constitutes torture would depend on the amount of pain or suffering experienced by the individual during the process, and whether that pain rose to the level of severe. This, however, still doesn’t unblur the lines for everyone – while many would believe waterboarding to fall easily within the confines of UNCAT’s definition, others, like Cain or Bachmann, believe it to merely be “uncomfortable.”

To be clear, this is not an issue that divides neatly among party lines. John McCain spoke out against the practice as torture in the 2008 Presidential election, and again after Saturday night’s debate, taking to

f=”http://twitter.com/SenJohnMcCain”>his Twitter account to say “Very disappointed by statements at SC GOP debate supporting waterboarding. Waterboarding is torture.” Both Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman also called waterboarding torture during the debate, with Paul stating, “It’s really un-American to accept, on principle, that we will torture people that we capture.”

The use of waterboarding and its legal and moral implications has long been controversial. In 2002, the Bush administration secretly approved the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques in order to secure information about possible future terrorist attacks from detainees. Reports of CIA’s detention and interrogation program incited debate about the legality of the practices and whether

they constituted torture. On July 20, 2007, President Bush signed , Interpretation of the Geneva Conventions Common Article 3 as Applied to a Program of Detention and Interrogation Operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, barring the CIA from certain practices, including those listed in the Torture Act, the Detainee Treatment Act, and the Military Commissions Act. Significantly, the E.O. did not prohibit certain techniques expressly prohibited by the military under the 2006 Army Field Manual – techniques including hooding, sleep deprivation, forced standing for long periods, and waterboarding. In 2009, President Obama revoked E.O. 13,440 in , Ensuring Lawful Interrogation. The E.O. states that an individual in the custody of an agent of the United States “shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach… that is not authorized by and listed in Army Field Manual 2-22.3.” President Obama’s E.O. thus defers to the practices authorized by, and therefore also prohibited by, the Army Field Manual.

As of now, even if a candidate in support of waterboarding were to take office, whether the CIA would engage in the practice again remains highly doubtful. The Army Field Manual was created under the watch of CIA Director and retired general David Petraeus. General Petraeus stated that during his time as commanding general in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at U.S. Central Command, he had overseen the detention of more detainees than any other person in uniform. According to Gen. Petraeus, “the Army Field Manual techniques do work.” Even more significantly, Gen. Petraeus testified before Congress that not only are such aggressive interrogation techniques useless for gathering reliable intelligence, but could also endanger American forces and our nation’s reputation. John Rizzo, the CIA’s chief legal officer from 2004-2009, similarly warned against embarking upon the admittedly aggressive interrogation and detention program of the past, stating only to move forward if there was a national and administrative will to do so – “and for gods sake, don’t change your mind six or seven years down the road.”

As the days count down and the debates add up, the controversy over the candidates' views, national security or otherwise, will continue to increase. Tuesday's debate is sure to add interesting insight to what has already been touched on so far.

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