With waterboarding, they are told that unless the information is provided, their time underwater will be extended until they die.
Coercive interrogation techniques are under scrutiny, and the next U.S. attorney-general, Eric Holder, has testified in his congressional confirmation hearings that he regards water-boarding as torture.
Waterboarding is a method that is intended to persuade the victim that he is in imminent danger of drowing. He is strapped to a board, with a damp towel placed over his face, and then lowered underwater for a few seconds. Then the individual is told that unless the required information is provided, the amount of time spent underwater will be extended until they die.
Since 2002 waterboarding has been applied to three terroroists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the principal planners for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Within moments, KSM, as he is known in the intelligence community, agreed to cooperate.
The key to waterboarding is persuading the victim that they are about to drown. In reality there is no such danger, as NATO personnel were taught when they underwent routine escape and evasion training during the Cold War, but most terrorist suspects have not had the benefit of that experience and succumb very quickly to their interrogators’ demands.
Certainly waterboarding is considered torture by the European Court of Human Rights, and so is sensory deprivation, white noise and other similar methods which were the subject of two judicial enquiries in 1973 after complaints in Northern Ireland.
The issue is important because the application of torture in most circumstances prevents the victim from being charged with a crime. A 30 year-old Saudi suspect, Mohammed al-Qahtani, was subjected to isolation, sleep deprivation and the cold while he was held at Guantanamo Bay, and as a result of his treatment Susan Crawford, who is the American official in charge of sleecting the detainees to face trial, has excluded Qahtani from prosecution.
The British regard even the hooding of suspects as a form of torture, and now accept the high standards imposed by the European Court. Interference with food and sleep is also regarded as torture, but what about the psychological pressure applied by having a suspect listen to a fake execution, or a recording of torture being conducted in a neighbouring cell? Such methods have proved effective, but once they have been disclosed and practiced in training exercises they lose their effectiveness.