On May 13, 2004, a novel euphemism was delivered into the public lexicon by anonymous “counterintelligence official” sources cited in a New York Times article. The piece reported the CIA had been using “a technique known as ‘water boarding,’ in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown.” The technique was described by the Times as one of several “methods [that] simulate torture.”
Before long, Alan Dershowitz (Boston Globe, 5/15/04)—the Harvard law professor who advocates for a system of “torture warrants” (San Francisco Chonicle, 1/22/04)–had coined a brand new catchphrase by stringing the two words together into one: “waterboarding.” As Dershowitz himself acknowledged to Times columnist William Safire (3/9/08), “When I first used the word, nobody knew what it meant.”
Indeed, a search of newspaper archives reveals that until May 2004, the term had actually meant an aquatic sport similar to surfing. Meanwhile, the technique now known as “waterboarding”—in which the person being tortured is actually drowning, aspirating fluid to the point of being unable to breathe—had previously been called “water torture,” or simply “torture,” by the media.
Water torture had cropped up in media reports on several occasions prior to the New York Times’ revelations about CIA “water boarding.” During the insurrection against the U.S. occupation of the Philippines (1899-1902), the U.S. military tortured suspected members of the Filipino resistance with a similar technique that they referred to as the “water cure.”
A Washington Post (9/23/1902) news article on this practice, which referred to it as “the form of torture known as the water cure,” was typical of newspaper reporting of the time—which used the term “water cure” more or less interchangeably with the word “torture.” When a U.S. Army major was court-martialed and then found not guilty after being accused of administering the “water cure” to Filipinos, the Post reported on the verdict (6/7/1902) under the headline “Torture Is Upheld.” Similarly, a Chicago Daily Tribune headline (1/9/1903) referred to “torture orders” in an article about another army major accused of having authorized the use of the “water cure.” Newspaper reports about the use of the “water cure” by U.S. occupation forces in Haiti similarly identified it as “torture” (New York Times, 5/4/1907, 5/9/1921).
Following World War II, when U.S. military tribunals tried Japanese military officials for war crimes for torturing prisoners of war, graphic accounts surfaced about the practice called “the water treatment,” which, as federal judge and laws of war scholar Evan Wallach observed (Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, 2007), “differ[ed] very little” from the “descriptions of waterboarding as it is currently applied.” One of the common practices of the Japanese military was described as follows in the Judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East: “The victim was tied or held down on his back and cloth placed over his nose and mouth. Water was then poured on the cloth.”
This practice, first defined in the New York Times (7/27/42) as “forced drownings,” was referred to by the Washington Post (10/7/46) as “water torture” and by the New York Times (9/6/45) as “the Oriental ‘water torture.’” Other newspaper accounts (New York Times, 8/16/42, 8/31/42, 12/25/45, 7/26/47; Washington Post, 9/6/42; Chicago Tribune, 6/9/46) unequivocally defined the “water treatment” as a form of torture. Meanwhile, reports of the use of identical practices against American POWs in the Korean War were covered in the New York Times (8/9/53) as “stories of planned and deliberate torture.”
Over a decade later, “water torture” was mentioned in the headline of a Washington Post article (3/15/68) about the Australian army’s admission that a soldier had administered the “water treatment” to a Vietnamese woman suspected of being a guerilla. Six months later, the Post (8/12/68) published a front-page photographic expose of U.S. soldiers administering this same “water treatment” to a Vietnamese prisoner. A follow-up report in the Post (10/29/70) referred to this practice, which resulted in charges against the commander of the U.S. Army troops in South Vietnam, as “an ancient Oriental torture called ‘the water treatment.’”
Media reports commonly used the term “water torture” to describe the Cambodian Khmer Rouge’s practice of tying prisoners to a board and pouring water over their noses and mouths. In a feature article about the late Cambodian artist Vann Nath, who painted pictures of the Pol Pot regime’s various torture devices (including perhaps the clearest visual precursor of today’s “water board”), the L.A. Times (8/8/97) described the artist’s “contributions to history as a witness to the systematic torture and execution of Pol Pot’s victims. He painted images of acts he witnessed or heard described while in prison: electric shock treatment, water torture.” The San Diego Union-Tribune (12/16/89) also referred to the Khmer Rouge’s methods of interrogating through “water torture.”
In 1983, media reports on the trial of a Texas sheriff who had used a technique remarkably similar to today’s “waterboarding” also used the term “water torture” (UPI, 8/31/83, 9/1/83, 9/7/83). One article published in the New York Times (9/2/83) about the case began, “Two convicted burglars testified today that they had watched in fear as a former East Texas sheriff and his deputies used a water torture.” In another New York Times article (9/1/83), the news that “another former deputy testified that they had handcuffed prisoners to chairs, placed towels over their faces and poured water on the cloth until the prisoners gave what the officers considered confessions” was summarized with the headline: “Ex-Deputy Tells Jury of Jail Water Torture.”
Media also referred to the practice as torture when it was used by the U.S. to train intelligence agents and military personnel who were at risk of being captured by enemy forces. In a column tracing the origins of the word “waterboarding,” New York Times columnist William Safire (3/9/08) noted that a 1976 article had referred to U.S. Navy trainees being
strapped down and water poured into their mouths and noses until they lost consciousness. . . . A Navy spokesman admitted use of the “water board” torture . . . to “convince each trainee that he won’t be able to physically resist what an enemy would do to him.”
Outside of newspaper editorial pages and commentary programs, the phrase “water torture”—used in the media to refer to nearly identical interrogation practices in the past—has been strikingly absent from the news coverage of the CIA and military interrogations of U.S. detainees. Prior to the publication of the Times article that substituted the term “water boarding,” the new term had only ever been used in the newspaper of record to refer to the sport. A search of the terms “waterboarding” and “interrogation” in the Nexis database prior to the date of the article’s publication yields not a single newspaper or newswire article.
In contrast, in the four years since the New York Times first mentioned “water boarding,” the term has cropped up in 1,000 stories in U.S. newspapers and wires, frequently being mentioned in the contracted single word form first introduced by Dershowitz, and without quotation marks.
While in the past the practice had been referred to as “forced drownings” (e.g., New York Times, 7/27/42), “waterboarding” has been almost universally referred to as “a type of simulated drowning” (Washington Post, 4/2/08) or as a “simulated drowning technique” (New York Times, 4/2/08), which, on occasion, some media organizations will go so far as to point out is “considered torture by many rights advocates” (Knight Ridder, 4/4/08). In short, as Dershowitz recently observed (New York Times, 3/9/08), “Waterboarding has in the last few years taken on the generic meaning ‘simulated drowning.’”
Yet this meaning is incorrect: As Wallach has pointed out in an op-ed (Washington Post, 11/4/07), “To be effective, waterboarding is usually real drowning that simulates death.” He elaborated that the victim experiences the sensations of drowning: struggle, panic, breath-holding, swallowing, vomiting, taking water into the lungs and, eventually, the same feeling of not being able to breathe that one experiences after being punched in the gut. The main difference is that the drowning process is halted.
Malcolm Nance, a former instructor at the U.S. Navy’s Advanced Terrorism, Abduction and Hostage Survival program who has taught American service members what to expect under torture, concurred with this assessment of “waterboarding” in an interview with Extra!: “There is nothing simulated about it.”
U.S. Justice Department legal counsel John Yoo’s 2003 memo, which provided a legal justification for the use of “waterboarding,” has deservedly been rebuked by the media for having “redefined torture to justify repugnant, clearly illegal acts,” as one New York Times editorial (4/4/08) put it. Unfortunately, the same can be said of much of the news reporting on “waterboarding.”