Earlier, I wrote about the practice of waterboarding after reading a piece in the New York Daily News by Malcolm Nance. Nance, who served as an instructor at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE), wrote that he considered the practice to be torture, without question, and therefore illegal. Given his description of the practice, I thought he made a good argument. A number of commenters questioned Nance's conclusions, description, and qualifications, and I decided to get a second opinion.
Fortunately, I have a resource for more information on this issue.
Captain's Quarters readers will remember Mike the SEAL, who has served this nation in several capacities, including as a decades-long member of the elite commando team as well as a first responder in his community. Mike wrote several extensive posts here at Captain's Quarters while overseas in various capacities in 2004 and 2005. I'm fortunate enough to count Mike as a personal friend for the last several years, and I know him to be a man of courage, honesty, and absolute integrity. For obvious reasons, I will not identify him any further.
Mike agreed to an interview with me on a wide range of topics regarding the waterboarding issue, primarily because the entire debate has angered him. Interrogation techniques both in training and in handling terrorists remains classified for good reasons, Mike insists. "For people to discuss what goes on during interrogation in SERE school is also a breach of classified information," Mike told me, "especially the discussion of the waterboard."
It needs to remain confidential in order to maintain the effectiveness of the training. At the conclusion of SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school attendees are ordered not to discuss the events and practices of the training even with other members of the military, because the entire exercise is intended to prepare students for surprises and the unexpected. Knowing the practical simulations beforehand lowers the effectiveness of the training, and SERE needs to be very effective in order to save lives. "Obviously, in the United States, you cannot completely duplicate a real POW camp because everyone knows they will not be executed there and at some point they will be able to come home," Mike says. "Knowing every detail of the practical simulations makes it that much less realistic in your ability to take it seriously and to employ the techniques that you learn … not just to save your life, but also to be able to resist interrogation."
Mike refuses to confirm or deny any specific practices used in SERE school either now or in the past. "If I did, it could be a breach of operational security," Mike told me. "Giving the intimate details of any interrogation techniques that we simulate on our own people, or use on an enemy combatant that has knowledge of other terrorists or plots to kill innocent people, is sedition, in my opinion." Mike emphasized this point several times during our conversation. These questions should be asked in secure forums in order to set policy. Having debates over the finer points of interrogation techniques in open settings "only benefits those we may need to interrogate."
However, he did take exception to one point of Nance's column, the one that I had found most impactful. Nance wrote:
In the media, waterboarding is called "simulated drowning," but that's a misnomer. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning.
Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.
Mike's secondary specialty in the SEAL force is as an advanced combat medic. Without getting into specifics on his experiences, Mike strongly disputes Nance's exaggerations of waterboarding. There is a word for people who have "pint after pint of water" filling their lungs: dead. "In fact," according to Mike, "they would be very, very dead. By definition, anyone who has drowned is in fact dead. A large percentage of true drownings do not involve ANY water entering the lungs because the epiglottis closes off the air passages as water enters the throat. People who die immediately from being immersed in water actually die of suffocation, not water entering their lungs. Not only that, many people who survive a near-drowning who do have even small amounts of water that slip by the epiglottis and enter their lungs can die later of fluid shifts and pneumonia. I can assure you that we do not use any technique that involves true suffocation or aspiration of water into the lungs. One cannot get questions to answers from people who suffocate or have water fill their lungs in any interrogation technique, which would render that technique more than a little self-defeating. Dead men tell no tales -- and also make rather poor soldiers."
Mike emphasized that modern military interrogators receive excellent training and know that coercive techniques do not usually work as well as "positive incentives" and they will generally work through "echelons" of interrogation to obtain critical information. Mike would not go into any detail on "positive incentives" anymore than he would about coercive interrogation techniques generally used as a last resort. He continued to emphasize operational security (OPSEC). However, there are many different scenarios for interrogations, including time-critical emergencies, such as hostage rescue or impending attacks. "Effective interrogators need every range of options in these cases, including methods that use coercion to elicit information, for the different situations that our forces not only might face, but have faced. He used the examples of rescuing captured American soldiers from terrorists when we know they will be brutally tortured and murdered if not found immediately and rescued. "I'm guessing that the vast majority of Americans who vote would not have a problem with us using coercive tactics to get that kind of information from a terrorist."
This puts Nance's assertions in a much different light. He seems to have exaggerated the actual specifics of waterboarding, as well as the risk to the life of the detainee subjected to it. If so, then we are back to the issue of whether frightening terrorists amounts to torture, and whether the shocking nature of a technique that raises few safety risks outweighs the value of the lives it might save.
However, Mike has serious concerns about this nation's perspective in this war, and whether it indicates an inability to defeat our enemies. "It's just blows me away that we're talking about the frickin' waterboard over here, when they're cutting off people's heads over there." Even the Abu Ghraib scandal, which was "unnecessary, unprofessional, and without purpose," has been overplayed into some kind of systemic and universal blight on the American military. Those responsible "got prosecuted … as they should be," but it pales into insignificance in comparison to what Saddam and his forces did at Abu Ghraib - "the most sadistic forms of torture." Those tortures continue with al-Qaeda to this day, but we seem uninterested in discussing that, instead spending years talking about a few isolated incidents and fret over how we treat the enemy in this war.
Mike continued with a rather chilling set of thoughts. "Many terrorists we capture already exploit what they perceive to be our weaknesses because of the media. They frequently ask for an attorney as soon as they are captured, medical care for the most trivial things and claim all sorts of abuses. The message has obviously been grossly distorted. OK, this my own opinion here but you want the enemy to believe the reality of this war as follows: Yes we will kill them swiftly if they resist capture. No, we will not kill them if they give up and do not resist capture. Yes we will start off by being humane, accommodating of their religion and culture and even give them positive incentives if they cooperate during interrogation. But they absolutely must believe that we are fully authorized by our country to use any measure necessary to extract time-critical information from them if there is a need to do so.
“Anyone suggesting that we should enact some kind of strict rules against what they perceive to be torture in time-critical wartime interrogations is not only naive but also dangerous. Interrogators in war zones who are up against any kind of time frame to recover captured American or coalition forces are likely to go right up the echelon of interrogation techniques including different types of coercion no matter what anyone says back in this fantasyland in the States. And if the interrogators think they could be charged with some kind of crime because the subject could file a case against them for carrying out their duties on a known terrorist who is withholding vital information, there is one likely fate for that individual at the end of his interrogation…death…sort of the reverse of what these left wing whackos claim to be seeking."
Mike also repeated his belief that anyone including politicians who disclose classified information during a time of war should be charged with treason. "I realize that the words sedition and treason are probably no longer found in the PC dictionary, but that is what this all amounts to. Why is it that the only legislators willing to make a stand are standing up for the non-existent civil rights of terrorists who are considered spies, saboteurs or guerillas and therefore not even covered under any Geneva Convention? Where are the patriotic attorneys who will put their party plans aside to prosecute those who give away classified information during a time of war? I strongly believe that it is high time that people in our country who give solace to the enemy and the secrets of our country to the press are charged with treason and given the strictest of penalties under the law."
I also interviewed a former SERE instructor, whom I will identify only as “Jon”, who confirmed Mike’s assertions about OPSEC and the highly confidential nature of the SERE training. While Jon does not see the discussion of the SERE training quite as damaging to the application of training to SERE students, he believes it to be very dangerous for any American commandos captured by enemies. “These tools are not to be discussed,” Jon said, not even with other American military personnel. “If they’re discovered, they can be exploited [by our enemies].” Jon’s reaction to the column was mostly one of disappointment. “If you Googled SERE [before the column], you would see nothing out there.” He found it inexplicable that another former instructor would choose to make the training public.
The men and women in our armed forces want to know that the American people and government stand behind them and support them in their fight for freedom and national security. Right now, they don't appear especially impressed with the conduct of our public discourse.
UPDATE: Perry at ShrinkWrapped has a few thoughts on perfection and its limits.