Waterboarding: An Issue Before Mukasey's Bid Michael Mukasey is now all but sure of winning Senate confirmation as attorney general. But Mukasey's nomination was almost derailed by his refusal to say whether he views the interrogation practice known as "waterboarding" as torture. The episode is only the latest in waterboarding's long history of controversy.

Waterboarding: An Issue Before Mukasey's Bid

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Today, President Bush urges the Senate to move quickly to confirm his nominee for attorney general, Michael Mukasey. Judge Mukasey is now all but certain to win Senate approval. Yesterday, two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed him. Other Democrats will vote no because Judge Mukasey refuses to say whether he views the interrogation practice known as waterboarding as torture.

CIA interrogators are believed to have used this technique, which simulates drowning. We may think that the controversy over waterboarding arose with the Bush administration's response to the 9/11 attacks. But the practice has a long history of controversy.

And Professor Darius Rejali of Reed College has studied that history. I asked him when a technique like waterboarding was first recorded in history.

Dr. DARIUS REJALI (Chairman, Political Science Department, Reed College; Author, "Torture and Democracy"): Well, the earliest cases date from about the 17th century. These are either cases from the inquisition where they pump water down your bowels or from farther in the East Indies where the Dutch put rags on the faces of the prisoner and pour water on the face. So these are the earliest cases.

LYDEN: Professor Rejali, I've read that American troops used simulated drowning in the Philippines at the end of the 19th century after the Spanish-American War. So I'm talking about the years 1902 to 1905. U.S. forces were trying to put down an insurgency in the Philippines. What exactly did they do vis-a-vis water techniques?

Dr. REJALI: The water technique involved opening the mouth of insurgents and pumping their mouths full of water until their stomachs bloated, which kind of produces the sharpest internal pain that a person can feel. It's like your organs are on fire.

LYDEN: So was it called torture?

Dr. REJALI: Yes. There was no question that it was called torture. Even the president and his correspondents referred to it as a mild Filipino torture, and he insisted that no one was damaged by it but he had no…

LYDEN: President Teddy Roosevelt.

Dr. REJALI: That's right. Teddy Roosevelt. He had no problem calling it torture, which is a real sharp contrast to what we debate today. I mean, what was controversial at that time was whether a civilized nation like the United States should use the uncivilized methods of the Spanish empire and other, sort of, inquisitional practices in pursuing counterinsurgency wars, whereas, these days, we debate whether this even counts as torture. They had no doubts it was torture; the only question was whether a civilized nation should use it.

LYDEN: Didn't court-martials arise from this?

Dr. REJALI: Yes. There were court-martials, and I believe that name of the most famous case was the case of a major by the name of Edwin Glenn, who was court-martialed for the use of the water cure.

The other important point is that many decommissioned soldiers, when they came back to the United States, brought with them knowledge of these techniques. When a soldier gets decommissioned, he ends up becoming a policeman or something like that. And many of these tortures appear then in the South, especially, as well as military prison lockups for contentious objectors during World War I.

LYDEN: After these cases around the turn of the century, was the practice of waterboarding ever used by American interrogators again?

Dr. REJALI: Yes. There was a case that was well-known in 1968, in which an American soldier was caught on camera assisting South Vietnamese interrogators. As soon as those pictures appeared in The Washington Post, the soldier was subsequently court-martialed on February 28, 1968 - two months after the pictures came out. There are other sort of unconfirmed reports of the use of waterboarding by American troops in Vietnam in this period as well.

LYDEN: Allied troops were tortured by the Japanese during World War II. Did the Japanese practice a form of waterboarding, and did the U.S. government considered this torture?

Dr. REJALI: To both questions, yes. The Japanese were among the most consistent users of water torture, and these techniques were subject of court trials that involved accusations of torture and mistreatments of American and British and other allied POWs. And the cases in which these Japanese POW commanders were involved, they were all convicted.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Of all the techniques that U.S. interrogators have used on terrorism suspects since September 11, 2001, why do you think waterboarding has been singled out for such attention?

Dr. REJALI: The more specific one is about the history and the name of a particular technique, the more outraged the American public tends to be. So the more specific you are, the more the opposition exists.

LYDEN: Darius Rejali is chairman of the political science department at Reed College. He has a book coming out called, "Torture and Democracy."

Thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. REJALI: Thank you so much.

LYDEN: You can read a victim's firsthand account of waterboarding and learn more about its use throughout history at npr.org.

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