Is waterboarding effective? CIA did it 266 times on two prisoners

The number, much higher than previously reported, comes out as President Obama visits CIA headquarters today.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
A worker cleans the floor at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. in this file photo from 2005. New information suggests the CIA used waterboarding hundreds of times on two prisoners.

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The ongoing debate over the ethics and usefulness of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding received new fuel on Sunday night, with a New York Times report that two Al Qaeda suspects were subject to the method, which simulates drowning, a combined 266 times.

That number is higher than previously reported, and will no doubt cast a long shadow over President Obama's first scheduled visit to CIA headquarters today, where he will publicly address employees.

The New York Times reports that, according to a recently released May 2005 interrogation memo, Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding 83 times in August 2002.

Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, who has confessed to planning the September 11, 2001, attacks as well as personally beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was subjected to waterboarding 183 times in March 2003.

That version of events is starkly different than the one reported by ABC News in December 2007, when former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who was involved in the interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah, claimed he had only been waterboarded once for 35 seconds.

"The next day, he told his interrogators that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate," said Kiriakou in an interview...
"From that day on, he answered every question," Kiriakou said. "The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

The sheer frequency with which waterboarding was apparently used on these two suspects may cast doubt on past Bush administration assertions that they were strictly obeying guidelines on the use of the practice, says the Times. It also notes that "a footnote to another 2005 Justice Department memo released Thursday said waterboarding was used both more frequently and with a greater volume of water than the CIA rules permitted."

The new information came out over the weekend thanks to the investigative work of bloggers like Marcy Wheeler, who found it in the footnotes of Bush administration interrogation memos released last week and posted it to her blog emptywheel.

Information on the frequency of the practice, and the amount of water used each time, was redacted from some copies of the memos but not from others. The numbers were not included in initial reporting on the release of the memos.

Writing on her blog, Ms. Wheeler points out that it is unclear how the CIA could use the method on these suspects so many times and still mange to abide by its own guidelines.

The same ... memo passage explains how the CIA might manage to waterboard these men so many times in one month each (though even with these chilling numbers, the CIA's math doesn't add up).
"...where authorized, it may be used for two "sessions" per day of up to two hours. During a session, water may be applied up to six times for ten seconds or longer (but never more than 40 seconds). In a 24-hour period, a detainee may be subjected to up to twelve minutes of water application. See id. at 42.  Additionally, the waterboard may be used on as many as five days during a 30-day approval period."
So: two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each = 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you'd need 18 applications in a day.  Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you've waterboarded 90 times–still just half of what they did to [Khalid Sheikh Mohamed].

The new information is certain to invigorate critics of the practice who say it is an ineffective way of obtaining information from detainees.

Last week, The New York Times made a similar claim in an article on the interrogation of Zubaydah, who was mistakenly believed to be a high ranking  "lieutenant" in Al Qaeda before interrogators realized he was just "a helpful training camp personnel clerk," the Times reported.

Interrogators, who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity, said they believed Zubaydah told them everything he knew before waterboarding began. They communicated this to agency higher-ups in Washington, who nonetheless insisted on the use of the practice, and asked to watch it take place.

"You get a ton of information, but headquarters says, 'There must be more,' " recalled one intelligence officer who was involved in the case. As described in the footnote to the memo, the use of repeated waterboarding against Abu Zubaydah was ordered "at the direction of C.I.A. headquarters," and officials were dispatched from headquarters "to watch the last waterboard session."
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