In administering the Bush White House’s most infamous “enhanced interrogation” procedure, waterboarding, CIA questioners employed a civilized tool for a brutal task—bottled water, sometimes straight from the fridge.
Current and former intelligence officials and testimony of two suspects themselves reveal this detail, one of many that help clarify how detainees underwent this procedure.
A leading Bush administration official, retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, says that the numbers associated with CIA waterboarding sessions—such as 183 times for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 83 times for al Qaeda training camp commander Abu Zubaydah—may even reflect the number of water bottles expended.
“They were counting the water bottles,” retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me. “Four or five bottles were used each time. That’s the agency. They had to keep a record.”
“Water bottle...they were counting the water bottles,” Wilkerson told me. “Four or five bottles were used each time. That’s the agency. They had to keep a record.”
Wilkerson says he learned of the use of water bottles from agency officials and from the report on detainee abuse by the International Red Cross Committee.
In August 2002, then-Assistant Attorney General (now federal appeals court judge) Jay S. Bybee laid out the clinical procedure for waterboarding, including a description that the “water is usually applied from a canteen cup or small watering can with a spout.”
Instead, interrogators used bottles. In fact, a former senior U.S. intelligence official earnestly explained to me that each “waterboarding” episode was nothing more than a “pour” from a water bottle. A one-pint water bottle takes about seven seconds to empty, so four or five bottles would take empty in 30 or 40 seconds, the time prescribed by the Justice Department memo approving the process. (Larger two-liter bottles might have been more efficient. Each takes a full 30 seconds to empty.)
Both Zubaydah and Abdelrahim Hussein Abdul Nashiri told the Red Cross that bottled water was used in their waterboardings (Nashiri says his was drawn from a refrigerator), among other specific details:
Zubaydah, who ran the Khalden training camp, described to the Red Cross an experience mostly faithful to the technique prescribed in the Bybee memo, albeit less clinical:
“I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited.”
He continued: “The bed was then again lowered to horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die.”
Nashiri, a Saudi who ran al Qaeda operations in the Arabian peninsula, said he had the same experience, except the water used was cold.
“I would be strapped to a special bed, which could be rotated into a vertical position. A cloth would be placed over my face. Cold water from a bottle that had been kept in a fridge was then poured onto the cloth by one of the guards so that I could not breathe.... The cloth was then removed and the bed was put into a vertical position. The whole process was then repeated during about one hour. Injuries to my ankles and wrists also occurred during the waterboarding as I struggled in the panic of not being able to breathe.”
Where did the bottled water come from? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed believes it was locally purchased. On one occasion, he told the Red Cross, a water bottle was brought to him without the label removed. “It had [an] email address ending in ‘.pl.’”, indicating it had been purchased in Poland, where he was being held.
Robert Windrem is a senior research fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security. For three decades, he worked as a producer for NBC News. During that time, he focused on issues of international security, strategic policy, intelligence and terrorism. He is the winner of more than 40 national journalism awards for his work in print, television, and online journalism, including a Columbia-duPont Award.