What Is Water Boarding?

By: Julia Layton  | 
Water boarding at demonstration
Protesters demonstrate water boarding to volunteer Maboud Ebrahim Zadeh, Nov. 5, 2007, in front of the Justice Department. The demonstration was protesting the nomination of Michael Mukasey for Attorney General. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Water boarding is an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, causing intense psychological distress and a gag reflex in the subject, making them believe they are about to die.
  • Despite its use in training CIA members and Navy SEALs, many consider water boarding ineffective for reliable intelligence gathering, and it is widely condemned as a form of torture by human rights groups and international law.
  • The technique was banned for all U.S. government employees, including CIA agents, by an executive order from President Obama in 2009, further codified by the McCain-Feinstein amendment in 2015.

In October 2007, Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey drew criticism for his refusal to characterize water boarding, a controversial interrogation technique considered by many to be illegal, as torture.

Mukasey, a retired federal judge nominated by President Bush, dodged the question in his confirmation hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, stating that "if [water boarding] amounts to torture, it is not constitutional," but never explicitly condemning it [source: NPR]. His response prompted several senators on the committee to declare that they would oppose Mukasey's nomination as Attorney General unless he denounced water boarding as a form of torture. Nevertheless, Mukasey was confirmed and served under President Bush.


Mukasey's nomination wasn't the first time the Bush administration faced controversy over what it considered appropriate interrogation techniques of terror suspects. In an October 2006 radio interview, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked if a "dunk in the water" was an acceptable form of prisoner interrogation. When he answered in the affirmative, many people took that to be an endorsement of water boarding. Human rights groups immediately seized on the statement as indicating support for torture, and Cheney's spokespeople released statements saying that Cheney was not endorsing water boarding when he made that remark.

Water boarding has been around for centuries. It was a common interrogation technique during the Italian Inquisition of the 1500s and was used perhaps most famously in Cambodian prisons during the reign of the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s. As late as November 2005, water boarding was on the CIA's list of approved "enhanced interrogation techniques" intended for use against high-value terror suspects. And according to memos released by the U.S. Department of Justice in April 2009, water boarding was among 10 torture techniques authorized for the interrogation of an al-Qaida operative. In a nutshell, water boarding makes a person feel like he or she is drowning.

Water boarding as it is currently described involves strapping a person to an inclined board, with their feet raised and their head lowered. The interrogators bind the person's arms and legs so no movement is possible and cover the person's face. In some descriptions, the person is gagged, and some sort of cloth covers the nose and mouth; in others, the face is wrapped in cellophane. The interrogator then repeatedly pours water onto the person's face. Depending on the exact setup, the water may or may not actually get into the person's mouth and nose; but the physical experience of being underneath a wave of water seems to be secondary to the psychological experience. The person's mind believes they are drowning, and the gag reflex kicks in as if they were choking on all that water falling on their face.

So what do intelligence professionals think of this technique?


How Effective Is Water Boarding?

Vietnam, 1968: A U.S. soldier questions an enemy suspect with the help of a water-boarding technique.
Photo Courtesy United Press International

CIA members who've undergone water boarding as part of their training have lasted an average of 14 seconds before begging to be released. The Navy SEALs once used the technique in their counter-interrogation training, but they stopped because the trainees could not survive it without breaking, which was bad for morale. When the CIA used the water-boarding technique on al-Qaida operative and supposed "9/11 mastermind" Khalid Sheik Mohammed, he reportedly lasted more than two minutes before confessing to everything of which he was accused. Anonymous CIA sources report that Mohammed's interrogators were impressed.

Many CIA officials see water boarding as a poor interrogation method because it scares the prisoner so much you can't trust anything he tells you. Sen. John McCain, who was tortured as a POW during the Vietnam War, says water boarding is definitely a form of torture. Human rights groups agree unanimously that "simulated drowning," causing the prisoner to believe he is about to die, is undoubtedly a form of psychological torture. The international community recognizes "mock executions" as a form of torture, and many place water boarding in that category. In 1947, a Japanese soldier who used water boarding against a U.S. citizen during World War II was sentenced to 15 years in U.S. prison for committing a war crime.


In September 2006, the Bush administration faced widespread criticism regarding its refusal to sign a congressional bill outlawing the use of torture techniques against all U.S. prisoners. That same month, the U.S. Department of Defense made it illegal for any member of the U.S. military to use the water-boarding technique. The CIA and its interrogators were unaffected by that new policy, as the CIA is not a branch of the U.S. military.

However, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that banned all government employees, including CIA agents, from using torture and restricted them to noncoercive interrogation techniques. The Senate codified the ban in 2015 with the McCain-Feinstein amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.

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