Tom Ricks's Inbox
Washington Post
Sunday, November 11, 2007; B02

Here retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, a veteran military 
intelligence officer, writes to a friend to explain why he opposes 
the practice of waterboarding, even though many Americans appear 
to endorse its use in interrogations of suspected terrorists: 

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Here is my take on your specific question concerning why some out 
there think it (waterboarding) works, and what might you be missing. 
In the interests of disclosure, I have seen waterboarding attempted 
in a hostile environment once, against a 19 year old rural woman who 
had the misfortune to live in an area regularly frequented at night 
by Viet Cong units. With her entire family wailing in the courtyard 
of their straw home, she writhed on the ground, trying to throw off 
the four men who had her pinned down with a poncho over her face 
while the team leader poured water onto the poncho. She told the PRU 
who were doing it nothing, insisting she did not know, and appeared 
close to death before they stopped. It could not be determined 
whether she knew nothing, or was just willing to die rather than 
provide the nightly visiting schedule of the local VC cadre.

I told both the PRU leader and his Agency advisor that I would not 
accompany them again if they were going to treat villagers in this 
manner. It is inconceivable to me that anyone who has ever witnessed 
this tactic would not consider it torture. I also think the debate 
about whether a given harsh interrogation practice is technically 
"torture" or merely a "coercive interrogation technique" is the kind 
of hair splitting, legalistic smokescreen argument that folks love 
to toss out these days.

Now to the issue: There is a consituency of frustrated Americans, in 
and out of government, who want to believe that waterboarding or the 
like works. They want to get even with the enemy; to avenge the 
losses of 9-11; and obtain information to prevent a repeat. Or they 
want to eliminate the "terrorists" in Iraq who beheaded our citizens 
and who use indiscriminant, "cowardly" tactics to kill our troops and 
Iraqi civilians, and they think that this is one way to accomplish 
this goal. To such folks, "taking off the gloves" has an emotional 
appeal to it. The foe are animals; they don't deserve to be treated 
with respect they don't give to our guys. To such armchair warfighters, 
things like waterboarding pose tempting shortcuts to get the 
information we need to save American lives. In addition, the person 
who might bite on such an approach is able to turn to many authority 
figures and role models who will reassure him that this is the way 
to go, whereas those experienced intelligence professionals who can 
give many reasons to counter the appeal of these techniques tend not 
to hold the spotlight.

. . . Now stir in a heavy dose of persuasive drama in shows like "24," 
which show the American hero brutalizing prisoners and invariably 
getting the hot intelligence he needs to save a city in a matter of 
moments (not counting the break for a commercial). How persuasive is 
that to many viewers? I can tell you that it was certainly persuasive 
to some young Army interrogators I taught last year at Ft. Sam 
Houston. . . .

Almost no one who has interrogated people would deny that there could 
be this or that specific case wherein some kind of torture or coercive 
tactic might cause a prisoner with a low threshhold of pain, or who 
has faltering loyalty to his cause, to cough up valid information. That 
is always possible. Anyone can conjure up a construct that would show a 
harsh tactic as effective in a specific case.

But this does not make the tactic right, legal, morally correct, wise 
for our country's policy, effective, or defensible, and such a 
hypothetical does not begin to compensate for the damage done to our 
country and its stance as a "shining city on a hill" when our people 
stoop to the kinds of conduct that we have condemned over history 
when practiced by the Gestapo, the North Koreans, the Chinese, the 
Islamists, or whomever.

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Tom Ricks is The Post's military correspondent. This feature aims to 
give readers a snapshot of the conversations about Iraq, Afghanistan 
and other matters that play out in Ricks's e-mail inbox. Have an 
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