New Revelations About The Use of Water Torture at Guantánamo


For Truthout, my colleague Jeffrey Kaye, who is a full-time psychologist but somehow manages also to pursue a second career as a blogger, has just written an article about the use of water torture at Guantánamo (and elsewhere in the “War on Terror”), which has been securing excellent coverage online.

I’m delighted to discover that people remain interested in the Bush administration’s use of torture, and questions of accountability that have been brushed under the carpet by President Obama, not just because terrible crimes have been committed and no one has been held accountable, but also because the topic of America’s torture program has generally slipped off the media’s radar (as has that other abiding topic of interest of mine, Guantánamo, and the 171 prisoners still held).

Jeff has done a great job in pulling together examples of prisoners who were subjected not to waterboarding, but to other forms of torture using water that the Bush administration largely managed to avoid mentioning or being asked to justify, including Murat Kurnaz, who discussed having his head held under water in his book, Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo, first published in 2007, Mohammed al-Qahtani, the most notorious torture victim at Guantánamo, and others — the Mauritanian Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was, notoriously, “broken” by torture at Guantánamo, and who had water poured over him to “enforce control” and “keep [him] awake,” the British resident Omar Deghayes, the Algerian Djamel Ameziane (still held, despite being cleared for release many years ago), and Mustafa Ait Idr, an Algerian living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, released in 2008 after winning his habeas petition, whose torture using water I mentioned in The Guantánamo Files, and in my article, After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims. Also of interest are examples from Iraq, which have also not been publicized widely.

Despite New Denials by Rumsfeld, Evidence Shows US Military Used Waterboarding-Style Torture
By Jeffrey Kaye, Truthout, August 5, 2011

In the controversy over whether torture, especially waterboarding, was used to gather information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Fox News’ Sean Hannity recently that “no one was waterboarded at Guantánamo by the US military. In fact, no one was waterboarded at Guantánamo, period.”

In his memoir, Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld maintained, “To my knowledge, no US military personnel involved in interrogations waterboarded any detainees, not at Guantánamo or anywhere else in the world.” But as we shall see, Rumsfeld was either lying outright, or artfully twisting the truth.

Others have insisted as well that the military never waterboarded anyone. Law and national security writer Benjamin Wittes wrote in The New Republic last year that “the military, unlike the CIA, never waterboarded anybody.” Harper’s columnist Scott Horton also noted last year, “There is no documentation yet of waterboarding at Gitmo, but the case book is far from closed on that score, too.”

Yet, though not widely reported and scattered among various articles and reports on detainee treatment by the military, including first-person accounts, there are a number of stories of forced water choking or drowning, both at Guantánamo and other US military sites.

In little-known testimony in May 2008 before Congress, former Guantánamo detainee Murat Kurnaz testified he endured a form of simulated drowning. In his testimony before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Kurnaz said that under US military captivity at Kandahar, Afghanistan, prior to his transfer to Guantánamo, his head was “dunked under water to simulate drowning.”

Asked by Republican Congressman Rohrabacher if he hadn’t then been waterboarded, Kurnaz responded, “No, it’s not waterboarding. It’s called ‘water treatment.’ There was a bucket of water.”

ROHRABACHER: Was a cloth put over your face and you were put on a board?

KURNAZ: There was a bucket of water. And they stick my head in it and at the same time, punch me into my stomach.

Rohrabacher reportedly commented, “The CIA is claiming that that only three people have been waterboarded. And this may be a loophole that they’re suggesting that’s not ‘waterboarding.'”

According to a report on Kurnaz’s testimony at the time by The Christian Science Monitor, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon replied to the torture charges: “The abuses Mr. Kurnaz alleges are not only unsubstantiated and implausible, they are simply outlandish.”

Whether implausible or not, waterboarding was one of a number of “counter-resistance techniques” requested for use at Guantánamo by Maj. Gen. Mike Dunleavy, commander of Task Force 170. In an October 2002 memo from Dunleavy’s intelligence chief requesting use of a number of techniques, including sensory deprivation, isolation, stress positions, forced nudity and death threats, there was also a proposal for “Use of a wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of suffocation.”

In a follow-up memo approving most, but not all of the requested techniques, Department of Defense (DoD) general counsel William J. Haynes II said of the “wet towel” and other so-called “aggressive” “Category III” techniques, “While all Category III techniques may be legally available, we believe that, as a matter of policy, a blanket approval of Category III techniques is not warranted at this time.” (Emphasis added.)

Water Torture at Guantánamo

Evidence regarding waterboarding or other forms of water torture by suffocation or choking at Guantánamo has been reported, but this article is the first collection of the various reports in one place.

Last April, a report by two doctors who were allowed to examine “medical records and relevant case files … of nine individuals for evidence of torture and ill treatment,” found at least one case of “near asphyxiation from water (i.e., hose forced into the detainee’s mouth)” and another case where a detainee’s head was forced into a toilet.

The report, by doctors Vincent Iacopino and Stephen N. Xenakis, was published at PLoS Medicine. Dr. Xenakis is also a retired brigadier general in the Army, who has worked as a medical consultant on a number of Guantánamo legal cases.

Additionally, accusations of military waterboarding turned up in a Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) report on “FBI Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations” that was released at almost the same time as Kurnaz’s testimony (May 2008). The IG noted that the chief of the FBI’s Military Liaison and Detainee Unit at Guantánamo told DoD Assistant Attorney General Dave Nahmias, “one of the planned or actual techniques used on [purported 9/11 would-be hijacker, Mohammed] al-Qahtani was simulated drowning.”

In fact, the military admits the use of pouring water over al-Qahtani’s head, as is discussed below.

At another point in the report, the IG describes one FBI agent who “once heard a discussion at GTMO when someone mentioned using water as an interrogation tool and someone else in the group said, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen that.'” According to the IG report, no FBI agent actually reported seeing waterboarding or water torture him or herself.

Whether or not waterboarding was observed by FBI agents at Guantánamo, we know from the minutes of a “Counter-resistance Strategy meeting” at Guantánamo on October 22, 2002, that waterboarding (called the “wet towel” technique) was discussed (see Tab 7 at link). The meeting included legal officials from the CIA, DIA, the Guantánamo intelligence chief, as well as members of the Guantánamo Behavioral Science Consulting Team (BSCT).

At one point, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, the Staff Judge Advocate at Guantánamo, asked whether SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) employed “the ‘wet towel’ technique.” Jonathan Fredman, then chief counsel to the CIA’s counter-terrorism center, replied:

If a well-trained individual is used to perform [sic] this technique it can feel like you’re drowning. The lymphatic system will react as if you’re suffocating, but your body will not cease to function. It is very effective to identify phobias and use them (i.e., insects, snakes, claustrophobia). The level of resistance is directly related to a person’s experience.

At this point, a BSCT psychiatrist noted, “Whether or not significant stress occurs lies in the eye of the beholder. The burden of proof is the big issue.” Fredman replied, “These techniques need involvement from interrogators, psych, medical, legal, etc.”

Fredman continued, “The CIA makes the call internally on most of the types of techniques found in the BSCT paper and this discussion.” In a reference to the approvals for waterboarding and other techniques given the CIA by Office of Legal Counsel memos a few months before, he added, “Significantly harsh techniques are approved through the DOJ.” There was no indication in the minutes from the meeting that waterboarding was not allowed for Defense Department use.

Waterboarding of Mohammed al-Qahtani

Mohammed al-Qahtani was a Saudi Arabian citizen brought to Guantánamo in early 2002. Ostensibly believed to be a part of the 9/11 plot, when interrogators became frustrated at their inability to get information out of him, or force his compliance, they turned to methods of interrogation that the Guantánamo Convening Authority Susan Crawford would later herself conclude amounted to torture.

By November 2002, al-Qahtani had become the “first subject of a Special Interrogation Plan,” which relied heavily on the military’s SERE torture school techniques, including isolation, stress positions, sexual humiliation and apparently, a form of waterboarding. SERE was created to provide US military personnel with training to resist torture.

Even years before Crawford’s admission, DoD’s Schmidt-Furlow report, looking at early allegations of detainee abuse, concluded that “the creative, aggressive and persistent interrogation of the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan [al-Qahtani] resulted in the cumulative effect being degrading and abusive treatment.” No one has ever been charged for such crimes committed against this or any other Guantánamo detainee.

The Schmidt-Furlow report details the use of water torture on al-Qahtani, an aspect of his torture that has been little reported:

On seventeen occasions, between 13 Dec 02 and 14 Jan 03, interrogators, during interrogations, poured water over the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan[‘s] head …

There is evidence that the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan regularly had water poured on his head. The interrogation logs indicate that this was done as a control measure only.

Time Magazine published al-Qahtani’s interrogation logs in 2005. The use of water to drench al-Qahtani’s head does not appear to be a “control measure” when it is discussed in the logs themselves.

On December 23, 2002, a log selection describes how interrogators hung pictures of swimsuit models around al-Qahtani’s neck. Then the lead interrogator “pulled pictures of swimsuit models off detainee and told him the test of his ability to answer questions would begin. Detainee refused to answer and finally stated that he would after [the] lead [interrogator] poured water over detainees [sic] head and was told he would be subjected to this treatment day after day. Detainee was told to think about his decision to answer questions.”

The day before, when al Qahtani had refused to look at “fitness photos,” saying it was against his religion, interrogators had “poured a 24 oz. bottle of water over detainee’s head.” The log notes dryly, “Detainee then began to look at photos.”

In their investigation of detainee abuse, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) noted in a 2008 report that the Navy limited waterboard demonstrations to two pints (32 oz.) of water. A January 13, 2003, memo, described in the SASC report, underreported how much water was poured over Qahtani, saying that “up to eight ounces of water” was poured over Qahtani’s head as a “method of asserting control” when Qahtani exhibited ”undesired behavior.”

The SASC report also said that the interrogation plan for another Guantánamo detainee, Mohamadou Ould Slahi, included the practice of pouring water over Slahi’s head to “enforce control” and “keep [him] awake.”

Three More Guantánamo Detainees Report Suffocation by Drowning

Besides Kurnaz and al-Qahtani, at least three other detainees have reported being tortured at Guantánamo by application of water meant to cause suffocation, choking or the sensation of drowning.

A 2009 article by Jeremy Scahill outlined the torture and abuse endured by former Guantánamo detainee and British resident Omar Deghayes. Scahill mentions two incidents where the Immediate Reaction Force (IRF, sometimes called the Emergency Reaction Force, or ERF) used forms of water torture on Deghayes. In one case, the detainee was shackled, his head put into a toilet. The IRF team “pressed his face into the water. They repeatedly flushed it.”

The IRF or ERF team also came into Deghayes’ cell on another occasion and conducted a simulated or partial drowning:

The ERF team came into the cell with a water hose under very high pressure. [Deghayes] was totally shackled and they would hold his head fixed still. They would force water up his nose until he was suffocating and would scream for them to stop. This was done with medical staff present and they would join in.

According to Scahill, the IRF team conducted this form of waterboarding three times on Deghayes. Note that the presence of medical staff is consistent with the use of medical personnel under CIA descriptions of how they conducted waterboarding.

Another example of water torture involving Guantánamo guards appears in a document related to the case of Djamel Ameziane, an Algerian Berber who has been held at Guantánamo for over eight years, despite the fact he never received military or terrorist training, nor fought against the US. According to a 2008 legal filing for Ameziane by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR):

In another violent incident, guards entered his cell and forced him to the floor, kneeing him in the back and ribs and slamming his head against the floor, turning it left and right. The bashing dislocated Mr. Ameziane’s jaw, from which he still suffers. In the same episode, guards sprayed cayenne pepper all over his body and then hosed him down with water to accentuate the effect of the pepper spray and make his skin burn. They then held his head back and placed a water hose between his nose and mouth, running it for several minutes over his face and suffocating him, an operation they repeated several times. Mr. Ameziane writes, “I had the impression that my head was sinking in water. I still have psychological injuries, up to this day. Simply thinking of it gives me the chills.” [Emphasis added.]

In March 2008, six Guantánamo detainees filed suit against Bosnia and Herzegovina in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for failure “for many years to take any steps to negotiate and secure the men’s release from Guantánamo.” One of the men, Mustafa Ait Idr, who had been rendered to Guantánamo and “taken from his pregnant wife in violation of a Bosnian court order to free him,” also reported use of water torture in a manner remarkably similar to that of Ameziane.

A CCR report on “Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment of Prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba” said that on one occasion prison guards demanded to search Idr’s cell. Idr cooperated, but they came in, sprayed him in the face with a chemical irritant and put him into restraints.

According to the CCR report, “Guards then slammed him head first into the cell floor, lowered him, face-first into the toilet and flushed the toilet — submerging his head. He was then carried outside and thrown onto the crushed stones that surround the cells. While he was down on the ground, his assailants stuffed a hose in his mouth and forced water down his throat.” As a result, Idr’s face was paralyzed for several months.

Other threats to use waterboarding on DoD prisoners, or to rendition detainees for water torture, are also on record. According to journalist Robert Windrem in a 2009 story at The Daily Beast, then-Vice President Dick Cheney requested the waterboarding of Muhammed Khudayr al-Dulaymi, the head of the M-14 section of the Mukhabarat. According to the article, the official in charge of interrogations of Iraqi officials at the time, Charles Duelfer, declined the request.

According to the SASC detainee report, the lead agency for SERE, Joint Forces Personnel Agency, constructed a CONOP (Concept of Operations) plan for use at a Special Mission Unit Task Force interrogation center in Iraq. The CONOP recommended use of the “water board.” Military legal figures reportedly objected to that and other techniques, but it is not known whether Special Forces in Iraq used waterboarding or other water torture techniques and the SASC report does not enlighten us on that point.

In another case, former Italian resident and Guantánamo detainee, Tunisian-born Saleh Sassi, reported that in late 2002, Tunisian agents came to Guantánamo and interrogated him. They “left no doubt about what awaited ex-Guantánamo inmates back in Tunisia: ‘water torture in the barrel’ and other horrors.” Sassi was released and sent to Albania in 2010.

Finally, the DOJ IG report on FBI interrogations referenced earlier describes how an Abu Ghraib prisoner, Saleh Muklef Saleh, was restrained and had cold water poured over him on more than one occasion. One time, according to Saleh’s own testimony, “They gave me one or two bottles of water and they asked me to drink it while I was hungry and they forced me to drink it and I did and I felt vomiting, then they ordered me to drink again and they were looking at me and laughing” (pp. 279-280).

Back in 2008, during the Congressional meeting where Murat Kurnaz testified to the use of water torture upon him, Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee commented, “It seems that we have a new definition … If you were wedded to the language of waterboarding, now we have new language called ‘water treatment,’ which may bear on being torture as well.”

To date, there has been no investigation that specifically has looked at the use of types of water torture, including waterboarding or water treatment, on detainees. The military’s current Army Field Manual on interrogation forbids the use of “waterboarding.” It is the only “prohibited action” term that is described with quotation marks around it.

A Human Rights Watch report issued on July 12 called for President Barack Obama “to order a criminal investigation into allegations of detainee abuse authorized by former President George W. Bush and other senior officials.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Betty Molchany wrote:

    Done [Dugg].

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m Digging this now. Mr Kaye’s account is important but difficult to read.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Betty, George and everyone who’s shared this. I like to help spread the word about Jeff’s research, and am delighted that he’s been puncturing Rumsfeld’s lies; or, at least, Rumsfeld’s attempt to distance himself from the CIA’s torture program, when he was responsible for approving techniques that became something close to a parallel program run by the military at Guantanamo.

  4. Jeffrey Kaye says...

    Andy, thanks so much to you (and to your readers) for helping spread the news about my story. You have done such fine work, I am glad to contribute something of value to begin to match yours, and that of others who have labored mightily to expose the U.S. (and UK) torture crimes, and bring accountability for such crimes, if not an end to the use of torture. It is evident that we have a long, long road to go yet, as the recent news of the boycott of the “toothless” UK torture inquiry suggests.

    Readers might be interested in some other comments I’ve made on this at The Dissenter, one of the Firedoglake family of blogs, to which I recently became a regular contributor. See “New Report: DoD Used Water Torture, Hid Behind “Waterboarding” Definition” at

    Great job the other day, btw, Andy, in your coverage of the torture inquiry scandal, because a scandal it certainly is. Sorry I didn’t reference your coverage of the “water treatment” (so similar to waterboarding, really) of Mustafa Ait Idr. I came across it first in the CCR document I quoted in the story.

    Damn, I wish I was nearby so we could drop by a pub or cafe and have a smoke (even if I am officially not smoking) and a beer or cup of coffee and shoot the breeze with you, all while we figure out what would work best next in this business we for better or worse have taken on. But, this note from half a world away will have to do. — All the best, Jeff

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I wish you were nearby too, Jeff. The discussions would, I’m sure, help to take this forward, even if the list of my vices is ever-dwindling (coffee and cakes, yes, but the cigarettes have now joined alcohol in the dustbin of memory).
    So in the absence of the opportunity to meet, keep up the great work! I’m on the annual family summer holiday starting on Monday (two weeks in Greece!), but although I’m leaving all electronic devices at home, I’ll be slipping into the odd cybercafe to post pre-prepared articles — the next instalments of my ongoing analysis of the Detainee Assessment Briefs released by WikiLeaks in April.

  6. Jeffrey Kaye says...

    Two weeks in Greece, I am envious. Have a great time. Look forward to your next installment on the DABs.

    Καλό ταξίδι! (Kaló taksídi! — Bon voyage!)

  7. Karin Friedemann says...

    Thank you for continuing to focus on this topic. I can’t say it’s fun reading but someone has to write it.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Karin. You have summed up my work over the last five and a half years. Someone had to do it, and it turned out to be me.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jeff. Two or three instalments will be appearing while I’m away.
    Oh, and I did mean to direct you specifically to Part Five for your research:
    I thought you would be interested in the evaluation of Abdul Razaq, the schizophrenic who was only held for a few months before being returned to Afghanistan, and the new angle provided in the WikiLeaks documents, as the authorities struggled to cope with him, and in the cases of medical abuse reported by Airat Vakhitov, from a Cageprisoners interview I hadn’t seen before.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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