(MintPress) – On Jan. 21, 1968, the Washington Post ran a front page photo of a North Vietnamese soldier pinned down, a towel covering his face as American and Vietnamese soldiers pour water into his mouth.
It’s a method of torture that leaves the victim unable to breathe, while at the same time simulating death through drowning. As water infiltrates the throat and mouth, the victim undergoes a sensation similar to that felt by those stuck under water without the ability to escape.
Then, it was referred to as the “water cure.” Now, we call this waterboarding — a highly divisive topic within the American political dialogue that is once again making headlines in the midst of John Brennan’s nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
While not top secret, the use of waterboarding was not common debate during the days of the Vietnam War as it was during the presidency of George W. Bush, who acknowledged the CIA, of which Brennan was a part of, used the torture method just three times on senior al Qaeda suspects.
Waterboarding, by definition, is considered illegal under international law, under the terms of the Geneva Convention.
New reports reveal the extent to which the CIA used or allowed waterboarding was underrepresented, according to a 154-page recent Human Rights study, which details a systematic practice of waterboard interrogations in the aftermath of 9/11.
This week, waterboarding was the topic of the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing for Brennan.
Brennan was considered an architect for the Bush-era war on terror, which included widespread use of waterboarding — he was there through it all. Having not stood against it in the past, there are concerns that, under his reign, it would persist.
“I appreciate John Brennan’s long record of service to our nation,” Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said in a statement published by CNN, “but I have many questions and concerns about his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs.”
During hearings, Brennan condemned U.S. use of waterboarding, claiming it should not — and will not — be done under his leadership of the CIA. Obama has publicly denounced the use of waterboarding as well, referring to it as torture.
Yet, what reason is there to believe the interrogation will cease to be used? If history is any guide, the torture method is not a fad that succumbs to public — or legal — outcry.
History of waterboarding
Following World War II, the U.S. held Japanese soldiers accountable for waterboarding American prisoners of war.
During the International Military Tribunal trial, Lt. Chase J. Nielson, who was held prisoner by the Japanese, made the following testimony, according to the Washington Post: “I was given several types of torture … I was given what they call the water cure.” He went on to describe it: “Well, I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.”
As a result, members of Japan’s government and military were charged for torture, according to the Post. Some served prison time — others were killed.
As noted by Nick Turse, editor of TomDispatch and National Institute fellow, the U.S. was on both ends of waterboarding techniques during the Vietnam War as well. Citing a 1969 Army report, a former American prisoner of war (POW) told a military investigator the details of waterboarding inflicted upon him by his captors.
“I had a ‘water job’ done on me. I was handcuffed and taken to the shower … They held my head under the shower for about two minutes and when I’d pull back to breath, they beat me on the chest and stomach. This lasted for about 10 minutes, during which I was knocked to the floor twice. When I begged for them to stop, they did,” the American POW said.
On the other end, testimonies by U.S. soldiers also show the use of waterboarding on Vietnamese prisoners.
“I held the suspect down, placed a cloth over his face, and then poured water over the cloth, thus forcing water into his mouth,” Staff Sergeant David Carmon said during a 1970 testimony to Army criminal investigators.
Either way the coin is flipped, waterboarding has consistently been damned by the party inflicted, calling into question the effectiveness of the torture method — not only in terms of obtaining credible information, but whether it perpetuates violence under the “eye for an eye” principle.
If confirmed, Brennan’s policies will be watched closely by human rights organizations familiar with what happened during the Bush Administration.