There have been a number of cases of detainees held by the Department of Defense (DoD) who have been subjected to water torture, including some that come very close to waterboarding, according to an investigation by Truthout. The prisoners have been held in a number of settings, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Guantanamo Bay.
In a number of settings, DoD spokespeople in the past – most notably former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld – have denied the use of waterboarding by DoD personnel. But as examples of DoD water torture have multiplied, it appears government denials about “waterboarding” were overly legalistic, and that behind them, DoD personnel were hiding torture involving similar methods of choking, suffocation or near-drowning by water.
Reports of water-related torture by the military include having water forced into the nose or mouth by a hose, repeated dunking in water, pouring water over the head in such a way that it is difficult to breathe or over a piece of cloth or hood, dousing with high-pressure hoses, dousing or partial drowning in combination with the application of a chemical agent, and in a few instances, actually being thrown into a large body of water, such as a river.
An article in Truthout earlier this month documented a half-dozen cases of DoD prisoners subjected to waterboarding-style torture. The article also detailed discussions among high-ranking military and intelligence officials around the use of waterboarding, and the fact that interrupted or simulated drowning at a military site in Kandahar, called “water treatment” in this instance, was revealed at a Congressional hearing in May 2008.
Human rights and civil liberties groups have expressed concern over news of DoD water torture and have asked for further investigation.
Asked to respond on behalf of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the reports of such water torture, spokesperson Kathleen Long said the committee had “no comment.”
One web site, Lawfare, co-founded by former Department of Justice official Jack Goldsmith, who was involved in internal decisions surrounding torture inside the Bush administration, seemed confused by the Truthout report, complaining that “reports of waterboarding-like tortures at Guantanamo” lacked “any examples of the military's using waterboarding, but refers to the repeated use of water in interrogations instead.”
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Truthout continues to investigate further instances of DoD waterboarding-style torture at US military sites in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo.
“Waterboarding-style” torture refers to the use of water to provoke choking or suffocation by water, and, in some cases, the triggering of the sensation of drowning, if not actual drowning itself, but without actually following the CIA's description of the waterboard procedure. It is has also been called “water treatment,” “water torture” and “drown-proofing.”
“The Interrogators Asked Me to Confess to Being a Part of 9/11”
In an affidavit filed on April 21, 2009, in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, Muhammad al-Ansi, a Yemeni accused of being a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, described his torture in a tent at Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan in the early weeks of 2001. According to al-Ansi, it began after a female interrogator became angry he would not “confess.”
Four American soldiers came and took me into another room. It was not a tent. They put me on a slab (the size and shape of a bed) made of bricks. I was made to lay on my stomach with my head hanging over the edge. They brought in a big water container and placed it under my head. They would [handwritten: forced [sic]] my head and shoulders [handwritten: under] into the water until I almost drowned and lift my head out at the last minute. They did this over and over. During this time, the interrogators asked me to confess to being a part of 9/11, confess I am part of al Qaeda, confess that I swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, confess I have explosive weapons training, and confess to knowing several names that I had never heard of. This continued for one to two hours. I said nothing other than: “Have mercy on me.”
In another instance of torture in Afghanistan, in June 2008, Tom Lasseter reported for McClatchy that Ghalib Hassan, “a district chief in Nangarhar province for the Afghan Interior Ministry,” was detained “in a basement at an airstrip in Jalalabad during March 2003” by Special Forces troops.
According to Hassan, “At night they would strap me down on a cot, and put a bucket of water on the floor, in front of my head. And then they would tip the cot forward and dunk my head in the bucket…. They would leave my head underwater and then jerk it out by my hair. I sometimes lost consciousness.”
Once again, the military personnel involved demanded that the prisoner confess, in this instance to supporting a former Taliban official. In fact, the Taliban had expelled Hassan in 1996, and he had fought with US-backed forces at Tora Bora against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Another case from Afghanistan concerned Saudi national Ahmed al-Darbi. Arrested by authorities in Azerbaijan in 2002 and later turned over to the Americans, he is the brother-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar. Al-Mihdhar is also famous for being one of two al-Qaeda suspects who US intelligence knew was attending a meeting with other suspected terrorists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000. As it turned out, this meeting likely involved the planning of the 9/11 and USS Cole terrorist attacks.
In a recently aired video interview with filmmakers John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski, Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism “czar” who resigned during the Bush administration, charged former CIA director George Tenet and top CIA officials Cofer Black and Richard Blee with suppressing information about al-Mihdhar's intent to enter the United States after the Malaysia meeting. The CIA deliberately had withheld cables to the FBI about al-Mihdhar entering the United States and failed to notify the State Department to put him and his traveling companion on the State Department watch list.
Al-Mihdhar's brother-in-law, al-Darbi, was renditioned from Azerbaijan to Afghanistan in 2002 and was later sent to Guantanamo, where he remains to this day. In a declaration dated July 1, 2009, al-Darbi cited a number of instances of abuse and torture at both the Bagram prison in Afghanistan and later at Guantanamo.
At Bagram, al-Darbi stated, at times, “a sand bag or hood was placed over my head and tightened around my neck, and then they would grab my head and shake it violently while swearing at me and they would also pour water over my head while my head was covered.” The covering over the head while water is poured sounds very much like waterboarding. Al-Darbi also indicated that a powder, perhaps pepper spray, was applied to him and then water sprayed on him, so that the “water absorbed the powder and it burned my skin and made my nose run.”
More Water Torture at Guantanamo
In an August 2 Truthout article, six cases of water torture were described at the Cuban naval base prison. Two of these cases, including “near asphyxiation from water,” were described in an article published in an online medical journal earlier this year, but the identities of the detainees were kept anonymous.
Further investigation has found three more reports of such torture at Guantanamo and two cases of unique water torture, something between water dousing and waterboarding-style interrupted drowning.
One of the cases, of British citizen Tarek Dergoul, who was released from Guantanamo in 2004, involved treatment very similar to that reported by Omar Deghayes and Djamel Ameziane in the earlier Truthout article. According to an interview given to UK Guardian reporter David Rose, when Dergoul refused to have his cell searched for a third time on one day, an Extreme Reaction Force (ERF) squad was called.
“They pepper-sprayed me in the face and I started vomiting,” Dergoul reported, “in all I must have brought up five cupfuls. They pinned me down and attacked me, poking their fingers in my eyes, and forced my head into the toilet pan and flushed.” They continued to beat him and finally shaved off his hair, beard and eyebrows.
In another interview, Guantanamo detainee Salim Mahmoud Adem, a Sudanese national released in 2007, ?told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now that he had witnessed another prisoner having his head shoved repeatedly into a toilet. Interestingly, the story came up after Goodman asked about waterboarding.
AG: Salim, did – Salim, did you witness anyone waterboarded?
SMA: I did not see waterboarding, but my neighbor, they insulted the Qu'ran, so we refused to listen to the guards. So they would come with the riot police and enter into the cells, one by one. So they went into the cell of a Yemeni brother, whose name is Othman [phonetic]. After they tied him, his hands to his back, they put his head to the toilet and turned on the flush many times. And all of us could see it. This was a horrible sight.
The torture of Sami al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman held at Guantanamo for seven years and finally released in 2008, presents a unique instance of torture involving forced application of water. Al-Haj was a hunger striker who, along with a number of other hunger strikers, was put on a forced feeding schedule. Civil rights attorney Candace Gorman, who has also represented some of the Guantanamo detainees, described the procedure in a May 2007 article for In These Times.
According to Gorman, al-Haj described his experience of forced feeding to his attorney. Al-Haj said he was strapped into a chair and had a tube painfully inserted through his nose twice each day. The attendants would blow air into the tube in order to ascertain its placement. Al-Haj would suffer in silence, “until tears stream down his cheeks.”
But sometimes things went even worse:
Three times they have inserted the tube the wrong way, so it went into his lungs. When they think that has happened they check by putting water into the tube, which makes him choke. Al-Haj says that never once have the hospital personnel apologized when the tube entered his lung.
Extreme “Water Dousing”
In a few reports, detainees have described a form of “water dousing” that went far beyond the description of the procedure given by the CIA. According to the 2004 CIA Inspector General (IG) report on “counterterrorism detention and interrogation activities,” which looked at the implementation of the so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques of the Bush administration, “water dousing” involved “laying a detainee down on a plastic sheet and pouring water over him for 10 to 15 minutes.” The room was to be maintained at room temperature.
In a 2008 Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) report, “Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by US Personnel and its Impact,” PHR quoted testimony by a detainee, Haydar (not his real name), who recalled having been sprayed with pepper spray and then hosed with high-pressure water. “This one female soldier subjected me to pepper gas and then sprayed me with water with extreme force – and I was writhing on the ground in pain,” Haydar said.
Another Guantanamo detainee, British citizen Jamal al-Harith, noted in a 2004 statement to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly that he knew of “three or four occasions guards using an industrial strength hose to shoot strong jets of water at detainees. This was done to me on one occasion. A guard walked along the gangway by the cages sending the hose into each alternate cage. When it happened to me I was hosed down continuously for about one minute. The pressure of the water was so strong it forced me to the back of the cage. It soaked the cage including my bedding and my Koran.”
Such cases of “water dousing” by Guantanamo guards, including the use of high-pressure hoses, went far beyond what was even contemplated by such a technique even under CIA torture procedures.
Drownings in Iraq
A review of news reports from Iraq reveal two separate instances of actual drowning of Iraqi detainees by US and British forces. In one case, soldiers were court-martialed and received light sentences. In the other case, the men were acquitted.
In January 2005, Army Sgt. First Class Tracy Perkins was convicted for ordering men under his command one year earlier to throw Iraqi detainees into the Tigris River. One of the Iraqis, 19-year-old Zaidoun Hassoun, drowned. Perkins was sentenced to six months in military prison and his rank was reduced to staff sergeant.
Perkins claimed he was ordered to throw the men in the river by his platoon leader, Army First Lt. Jack Saville. According to an account by the UK Guardian, Saville “pleaded guilty to assault and dereliction of duty,” and was sentenced to 45 days in military prison and ordered to pay a $12,000 fine. The light sentence was reportedly because “Lt. Saville agreed to testify against his captain, who had given him a hit list of five Iraqis who were to be executed on the spot if they were captured in a raid.”
But there was more. According to a July 2004 Associated Press article, the actions by Saville, Perkins, and two other soldiers, Sgt. Reggie Martinez and Spec. Terry Bowman, were initially covered up by their commanding officers. At an Article 32 hearing, and under grants of immunity, Capt. Matthew Cunningham, Maj. Robert Gwinner and battalion commander Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman said they told Saville and his men to “to clam up because they feared higher-ups in the chain of command would use the incident against them.”
In another case, British soldiers, operating as part of the US-led alliance that invaded Iraq, arrested and beat an Iraqi teenager, who was then ordered to swim across the Shatt al-Basra canal. According to an account in the Guardian, 17-year-old (some reports say 15-year-old) Ahmed Jabbar Kareem was too weakened by his injuries and drowned. All four soldiers involved were acquitted of manslaughter in the case. One of the soldiers, Irish guardsman Joseph McCleary, told the press, “We were told to put the looters in the canal. I was the lowest rank, and we were always told we weren't paid to think. We just followed orders.”
The acquittal of the British soldiers and the light sentences for US soldiers involved in the drowning of captives represent an attitude towards prisoners in general – including the use of water torture and drowning – that carried minimal consequences in the Iraq war theater.
Indeed, in a US Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) investigatory report dated May 27, 2004 (pg. 70), the special agent in charge reported that a team leader for 5th Special Forces group (Airborne), based in Al Asad, Iraq, gave “special instructions for the guarding and handling of EPWs” [enemy prisoners of war], including “maintaining a sandbag over their heads, playing loud music and pouring water over their heads.”
The torture of the Iraqi EPWs is very similar to the description Ahmed al-Darbi gave of his treatment at Bagram.
Reactions to New Revelations
The examples of water torture described in this and the earlier Truthout article are certainly not the only occurrences of water torture. For instance, one further example exists of a Guantanamo detainee who suffered water being poured over his head while it was covered, but further details could not be given due to legal restrictions covering his case.
It is also assumed that some instances of such torture have not yet been revealed. The press and human rights groups have not interviewed most prisoners released from US custody. Furthermore, detainees released from Guantanamo must sign an agreement that twice notes they can be “immediately” re-imprisoned if the United States finds any condition of the agreement, which includes prohibitions against conspiracy or vague “preparation of” “combatant activities,” violated. Fear of re-imprisonment and psychological traumatization from their experience have led many former detainees to maintain a silence about their experiences.
Not all observers or participants in DoD activities have indicated they witnessed or heard of water torture at DoD sites.
Morris Davis, who was chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay from September 2005 until his resignation in October 2007, told Truthout that his office, “focused on about 75 of the detainees we were assessing for potential prosecution.” He added he, “did not have the time or the manpower to examine the many others that were not likely candidates for prosecution.”
Even so, Davis told Truthout, “I never saw any evidence that any detainee was waterboarded or subjected to any similar technique at Gitmo,” though “others things [were] done to some of them that I believe constitute torture.”
In addition, some guards, even if critical of abuses at Guantanamo, have said they did not witness waterboarding or water torture at the Cuban prison camp. In an interview with The Talking Dog blog in March 2009, former guard Terry Holdbrooks Jr. said, “In my time in Camp Delta, I didn't see or hear of any waterboarding.”
But testimony and evidence offered in this investigation strongly suggest that water torture similar to waterboarding or of other extreme nature was inflicted on some prisoners under US military control, and also by allied forces.
Some sources have been adamant that waterboarding did in fact occur, for instance, at Guantanamo.
In an April 2007 statement to the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, Guantanamo detainee attorney Brent Mickum said that a guard who had worked at the prison camp told him “prisoners at Guantanamo were routinely waterboarded.” Mickum reiterated this point in an interview with the blog The Talking Dog later that year.
Mickum said the guard “confirmed that waterboarding, which he called 'drown-proofing' took place. This individual knew extensive details of the camp layout and the names of military personnel. Eventually, the full story will be released and people will be shocked at the extent of the depravity.”
Mickum has also said he heard from a civilian contractor that he heard interrogators talking about waterboarding at Guantanamo in 2003.
In a telephone interview, Alexander Abdo, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) National Security Project, responding to the accumulated evidence compiled on DoD water torture, told Truthout, “The suggestion that the use of water to torture is more widespread than previously thought is extremely troubling, and reaffirms the need for greater transparency and a broader investigation into the abuse committed under the Bush administration.”
In an emailed statement, Vince Warren, executive director for Center for Constitutional Rights, whose attorneys have represented a number of Guantanamo detainees, said, “It's clear even from the accounts of men who were released from Guantánamo that many more people were subjected to different forms of water torture or simulated drowning than the three victims of waterboarding the government has admitted to. Our attorneys can't talk about what happened to our all of clients because they are under a protective order, but public documents show the widespread extent of this barbarity. It's simply shameful.”