What is Waterboarding?

Document Date: November 28, 2007


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Waterboarding, or "water torture," is a brutal practice whereby an interrogator straps a prisoner to a board, places a wet rag in his mouth, and by pouring water through the rag induces controlled drowning. It is a paradigmatic torture technique that has long been considered a war crime; indeed, the United States has prosecuted enemy soldiers — and even U.S. troops — for engaging in the practice. Although this barbaric practice has been uniformly renounced by the United States and other nations committed to human dignity and rule of law, the technique has reportedly been used against terror suspects in CIA custody in so-called "black site" prisons.

One of the best first-hand descriptions of waterboarding comes from Malcolm Nance, a counter-terrorism and terrorism intelligence consultant for the U.S. government's Special Operations, Homeland Security, and Intelligence agencies, who says of waterboarding: "When done right it is controlled death."

But waterboarding does not exist in isolation. It is one of a larger set of techniques, developed by U.S. military personnel, known as reverse-SERE techniques. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. Until recently, SERE was a classified Department of Defense training for American servicemen and women. It was developed after the Vietnam War and based on studies of how Vietnamese and North Korean forces attempted to break American prisoners. It was meant to prepare soldiers for abuse they might face in enemy custody.

According to news reports, after September 11, 2001, psychologists familiar with SERE training began advising and developing techniques for interrogators at Guantánamo Bay. Known as "reverse-SERE," the skills once used to help American soldiers survive abuse are now being used by U.S. soldiers to torture others.

To learn more about why torture is illegal, visit:

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