Expert Sheds Light on Waterboarding Some Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee are balking at confirming the attorney general nomination of former Judge Michael Mukasey. The main issue involves waterboarding and whether it's considered torture.
NPR logo

Expert Sheds Light on Waterboarding

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Expert Sheds Light on Waterboarding

Expert Sheds Light on Waterboarding

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a photographer's brutal moment of clarity on a battlefield in Iraq.

COHEN: First, President Bush's nominee for attorney general may be in trouble. The Senate Judiciary Committee is supposed to vote on the nomination of Michael Mukasey in five days. Already three Democrats are opposed and more are doubtful. Their concern with Mukasey is his position on torture and the technique called waterboarding.

CHADWICK: It's been described as simulated drowning; it's reportedly been used by U.S. interrogators against some al-Qaida subjects. Critics say it is torture. It should be banned. Judge Mukasey has declined to say what he thinks.

COHEN: President Bush today defended his nominee and the administration's ambiguity on waterboarding.

CHADWICK: Malcolm Nance is a former instructor at the U.S. Navy's Advanced Terrorism, Abduction and Hostage Survival program. He's a counterterrorism consultant for the government who has taught American service members what to expect under torture by subjecting them to waterboarding, and he has endured a session himself.

Malcolm Nance, welcome to DAY TO DAY. Is waterboarding torture?

Mr. MALCOLM NANCE (Counterterrorism Consultant): Yes, of course it is.

CHADWICK: Why is it torture? What happens in waterboarding that leads you to define it clearly as torture?

Mr. NANCE: Well, first, there's an entire history that shows that waterboarding has been used for centuries as a form of torture, most notably throughout the Spanish inquisition and of course by many totalitarian nations throughout the 20th century, including the Nazis, the Vietnamese, the North Koreans. So there's an entire pedigree, so to speak, of people who have carried this out. What makes it a torture is actually the fact that it is a painful procedure. It does bring you to a level of debasement, humiliation and, of course, helplessness. And when the procedure is effected, there is almost nothing you won't do or say to have the procedure stop.

CHADWICK: When you were waterboarded, describe the experience. How were you restrained?

Mr. NANCE: Well, you are strapped down to a board and secured so that I couldn't move, because during the procedure the subjects tend to get very, very agitated and of course will use all force to try to get away.

CHADWICK: And then a cloth is placed over your face, is that correct?

Mr. NANCE: Not necessarily. The cloth is another component of the procedure. Some people use a cloth, some people use cellophane. However, for the most part all it requires is that your head is held, your body is strapped down, and water is introduced into your nostrils and your mouth.

CHADWICK: You mean it's poured over your face?

Mr. NANCE: Yes, it's poured over your face but in a controlled manner. You just don't throw water on there. The Vietnamese and the Cambodians used flower sprinklers to get a controlled rate of flow of water.

CHADWICK: Why can't you hold your breath or sip air or breathe through your mouth?

Mr. NANCE: If done right, the water will be entering your nostrils and then will be entering your mouth, and by the time that you open your mouth, first it's going to go down to your sinal passage and then into the back of your throat. And by the time that you start protesting or trying to get your breath, the procedure itself is done in such a rapid manner that you generally don't have that and you'll start trying to choke and spit it out, but of course more water is being introduced and you slowly start to get the drowning effect.

CHADWICK: Every time I read about waterboarding, see it described in the papers, it's called simulated drowning, so it sounds as though nothing really bad is actually happening.

Mr. NANCE: That's a mistake. And I can tell you only from my personal experience and from the procedures as I've seen it, the waterboarding is really best called drowning torture. Its intent is to drown you. It is not an uncomfortable feeling of water on your face. It is actually entering your mouth, your throat, down your esophagus, and then it can enter into your lungs and your stomach.

CHADWICK: How long did your session last?

Mr. NANCE: Oh, I couldn't tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NANCE: It seemed like an eternity at the time, but I'm sure it wasn't more than 20 or 30 seconds. But as far as I'm concerned, it was lasting a lifetime.

CHADWICK: Twenty or 30 seconds. Can't you hold your breath that long?

Mr. NANCE: You're not in a position to hold your breath because, because first off, you don't really know what's coming. And it's only once the water starts flowing into your sinuses and you start choking and trying to spit it out, it's overcome by very large quantities of water, and then of course it's a matter of the plumbing, pushing the water down into your system.

CHADWICK: People have said of this technique that it's effective. It works.

Mr. NANCE: Well, that's true, only in the sense that virtually anyone can be made to say anything when that procedure is carried out. So it's just the question of what exactly did you want the person to say or what exactly did you want to hear them say. It's a very, very effective tool for debasing a person and bringing them to the point where they will comply if only to stop the procedure. However, that doesn't mean that it's always going to be effective and as we make very, very clear in interrogation, torture does not work, because it has to be recreated in an environment without coercion. And a person who gives a coerced statement is a person who's completely unreliable. You don't know whether day is night or black is white. They don't care. They just want the procedure to stop.

CHADWICK: Have you been following the news over the last couple of weeks with Mr. Mukasey, Judge Mukasey saying he's not sure whether waterboarding is torture, and various people, political figures saying it is torture, it's not torture?

Mr. NANCE: Yes. I've been following it and I think it's - in all fairness to Judge Mukasey, it's quite possible that he does not actually know what the actual procedure that's being effected is in place. But he can fairly say that he does not know specifically what's being done, and that's sort of lawyerly. However, the entire procedure as a process - using drowning tortures or drowning simulations in order to extract and coerce information from a captive or detainee - has been pretty clearly mandated throughout U.S. law, treaties and international law, that torture cannot be used as a coercive measure.

CHADWICK: You write very powerfully about this in your blog at and have a link to that at our site at

You write: This debate, you say, assures us of one thing. These techniques will be used against Americans in the future.

Mr. NANCE: It's unfortunate, but true. First off, the entire process and concept of Americans as torturer is anathema to everything that we stand for. I take it personally. I served for 20 years in the military. I served quite honorably. I served proudly. My family is a military family. We have a century of naval service combined. And these were not the values that I was brought up on. These were not the values that we were told and that we were educated on that showed what an American is and what an American does.

It's one thing if you're doing stress inoculation, giving students a microcosmic view of what could possibly happen to them in captivity, because there's far worse tortures. But it's quite another thing for us to believe that this is a value of ours and that getting information in this manner, using extreme stress endurance and pain and humiliation is something which is okay for us. And the question that we have to ask ourselves is, did September 11th hurt us so much that we're more than willing to give away those American values? And I certainly am not.

CHADWICK: Malcolm Nance has used waterboarding to teach torture survival techniques to American service members. Malcolm Nance, thank you for speaking with us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. NANCE: My pleasure.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.