Mukasey: Drowning in Questions

The confirmation battle over President Bush's nominee for attorney general Michael Mukasey has hinged on his position regarding a CIA interrogation technique known as waterboarding. While calling it "repugnant" in a letter to Congress last week, Mukasey wrote that he didn't know enough about the technique to determine whether it's illegal. But after Mukasey sent the letter, a former Naval Intelligence officer who underwent waterboarding in training and inflicted it on hundreds of GIs argued in a Web article that there's no subtlety about it. It's "a torture technique, period," retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Malcolm Nance wrote on the Web site Small Wars Journal. "There is no way to gloss over it." The article drew hundreds of responses, and in an interview with NEWSWEEK, Nance said he would have resigned before agreeing to waterboard a prisoner. "I would consider it an unlawful order."

Mukasey waffled on the matter in a Senate hearing last week, and some Democrats assailed him for skirting the legal issue. (A Senate Judiciary Committee vote is set for Nov. 6.) The CIA doesn't comment on specific interrogation practices, but current and former administration officials, who asked for anonymity discussing a sensitive subject, said waterboarding or other harsh techniques were used on three of the most-senior Qaeda captives, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The officials said the agency stopped waterboarding detainees in 2003, although a law passed by Congress last year doesn't explicitly ban the procedure. Top intelligence officials worry that declaring it illegal could expose interrogators to investigations and private lawsuits.

Nance's criticism of the practice carries particular weight because of his background. As chief of training at the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, he prepared troops to endure brutal interrogation methods. He told NEWSWEEK how interrogators at SERE strapped GIs to a tilted board and rapidly poured water down their nostrils, causing them to cough and gasp for air—all while shouting questions at them. In his article, Nance wrote that medical teams at SERE (and, presumably, in actual CIA interrogation rooms) watch "for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment, to the final death spiral ... For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch." And exponentially worse, one can only assume, to endure.