Just How Bad Is Waterboarding?

Judge Michael Mukasey, nominee for refused to call waterboarding torture. Military veteran and Current TV Vanguard Journalist Kaj Larsen was waterboarded on camera, and he tells us exactly what it was like.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Judge Michael Mukasey's nomination as the nation's next attorney general looks likes it's going to go through. But the road hasn't proven as smooth as initially expected. The big stumbling block was when Mukasey refused to define and rule out an interrogation technique called waterboarding. He said he obfuscated on the terms of if it was torture or not.

Waterboarding is sometimes referred to as controlled drowning. Here's how it's typically done. It's a harsh technique, so be warned. Prisoners are strapped to a board or chair, a wet rag or cellophane is stuffed into or goes over their mouth. Water is poured over the cloth. What happens, the water goes into the nasal cavities, and it feels like you're drowning. No one can take it. Everyone cracks. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly lasted at about 90 seconds, and his guards were impressed with that.

We wanted to learn more about the technique. So now, we welcome Kaj Larsen. He's a Vanguard journalist with Current TV. Kaj, you waterboarded yourself?

Mr. KAJ LARSEN (Journalist, Vanguard, Current TV): Well, I didn't do it to myself. I contracted some ex-Army SERE instructors to do it for me - to do it to me.

PESCA: And what was the point of that?

Mr. LARSEN: Well, the point was that at the time we were having this national discussion about it and everybody was lobbying their opinion around…

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. LARSEN: …but nobody really had an idea of what the technique involved. So I had myself waterboarded, and then when I was working as a journalist for Current TV and then we put in on national television to let this sort of - to let the public decide for themselves whether this is the kind of behavior we should be engaging in.

PESCA: When someone needs to hire a guy who knows how to waterboard, what? Do you look it up in the Yellow Pages? Where'd you get those guys?

ALISON STEWART, host:

Craigslist? What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. LARSEN: It's not quite that simple. You end up finding a lot of bondage groups that are looking to do it.

STEWART: I bet.

Mr. LARSEN: But what we did was we found some ex-Army interrogators and Army SERE instructors who had done that as part of their service training.

PESCA: Now, do they get trained because they needed to know how to do it, or did they get trained as a defense against it? I mean, if these Army SERE guys know how to do it, is that an admission that the Army was or had been doing it?

Mr. LARSEN: Well, it's no secret that as part of their training for special forces operatives overseas, that sometimes in the past, the Army had waterboarded them in their attempts to teach special forces operatives how to resist interrogations. So that was the training purpose of it. So there's obviously a group of people out there who have performed that on a group of American soldiers, who have performed it on American soldiers in order to teach them how to resist interrogation techniques.

PESCA: And you were actually waterboarded before when you were in the military. Is that right?

Mr. LARSEN: That's correct, during my time in the service. So I was familiar with it. And then when this national debate erupted, that's when I decided to do it and put the whole thing on TV and online.

PESCA: Oh, did it feel any different the second time?

Mr. LARSEN: Well…

PESCA: Or do you always remember your first time?

Mr. LARSEN: The first time I was much weaker, because we hadn't eaten for six or seven days. So I was in a weakened state, and it's much harder to resist when you're in a weakened state.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. LARSEN: But both times, I knew it was a simulation. And I knew that they weren't trying to kill me. But it still didn't erode that feeling of sheer terror and panic when it's being done to you.

PESCA: Would you…

STEWART: You said that in your - at the end of your - in the video clip that's on Current TV, that you think - like, you remember things, but it's always -it's different the second time around. You don't remember certain sensations. What was something that was different the second time around for you?

Mr. LARSEN: Well, I mean, I just had forgotten the sheer panic that it induces where - I mean, even though rationally and logically you know that this is a controlled environment, you still feel like you're shackled to the bottom of a pool and you can't get out. And it's, really, your lungs are screaming and you feel like - it's a difficult sensation to describe, but maybe the closest analogy is like having a hot coal in your chest that you can't get out.

PESCA: So it's a combination of fear and actual physical pain.

Mr. LARSEN: Correct.

PESCA: And so it's different from - in thinking about the debate, I'm like, well, it's sort of like dangling a guy out the window. If he's convinced you won't be dropped, it's not pleasant, but you can survive it. But it's not like that at all, you're saying.

Mr. LARSEN: Right. Well, mock executions are illegal under international law. They're certainly illegal under the Geneva Convention. So if something simulates a fear of death, that would be considered illegal by most international protocols and standards.

PESCA: Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin, ABC reported, had himself waterboarded in 2004, because he figured if the department was talking about it, he should go through it. What do you think? Do you think if a candidate says let's do it, he should be willing to do what you did and go through it himself?

Mr. LARSEN: No. I think between Assistant Attorney General Levin's statements of having undergone it, which is a phenomenal act of courage, right, and between, like, my own documentary about it on TV - and you can see the whole unedited version, the whole 24 minutes unedited on current.com, right. There's enough evidence out there that I think a reasonable person can make a reasonable assessment about whether this technique constitutes torture or not.

PESCA: Kaj Larsen, Vanguard journalist for Current TV. We'll put a link of the video of you being waterboarded up on our blog, npr.org/bryantpark. Thanks a lot, Kaj.

Mr. LARSEN: Thank you.

STEWART: All right, Mike, because you're guest-hosting today, we gave you gentleman's choice for the last story in the show. And you came up with something, someone named Kid Delicious.

PESCA: Yeah. Do we really have to go beyond the name? Kid Delicious is the - he could be the best. He's the most compelling pool player in the world right now. And I've read a book about him, and I - you got to hear this guy talk, the stories he tells.

STEWART: All right. Kid Delicious and Mike Pesca coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. I wouldn't miss that combo, I think.

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