From the NYT:
"In an effort to quell growing doubts in the Senate about his nomination as attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey declared Tuesday that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques “seem over the line or, on a personal basis, repugnant to me” and promised to review the legality of such methods if confirmed.
But Mr. Mukasey told Senate Democrats he could not say whether waterboarding, which simulates drowning, was illegal torture because he had not been briefed on the details of the classified technique and did not want to suggest that Central Intelligence Agency officers who had used such techniques might be in “personal legal jeopardy.”"
There is an easy way for Mukasey to get around the fact that he has not been briefed on what the CIA did: just define waterboarding, say whether waterboarding so defined is torture, and add that not having been briefed on what the CIA did, he doesn't know whether or not what they did meets his definition. That Mukasey has not taken this obvious route suggests that he is not motivated by his own uncertainty, but by the desire to keep people he believes have engaged in torture from being punished for their crimes.
That we are even having a debate about this question, and that it is not a foregone conclusion that someone who claims not to know whether waterboarding is torture cannot possibly be confirmed as Attorney General, is a testament to the moral degradation of our country, and of our political discourse. Here is a description of waterboarding (h/t Katherine), written by a Malcolm W. Nance, a "former Master Instructor and Chief of Training at the US Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego, California":
"There is No Debate Except for Torture Apologists
1. Waterboarding is a torture technique. Period. There is no way to gloss over it or sugarcoat it. It has no justification outside of its limited role as a training demonstrator. Our service members have to learn that the will to survive requires them accept and understand that they may be subjected to torture, but that America is better than its enemies and it is one’s duty to trust in your nation and God, endure the hardships and return home with honor.
2. Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.
Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.
Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.
Call it “Chinese Water Torture,” “the Barrel,” or “the Waterfall,” it is all the same. Whether the victim is allowed to comply or not is usually left up to the interrogator. Many waterboard team members, even in training, enjoy the sadistic power of making the victim suffer and often ask questions as an after thought. These people are dangerous and predictable and when left unshackled, unsupervised or undetected they bring us the murderous abuses seen at Abu Ghraieb, Baghram and Guantanamo. No doubt, to avoid human factors like fear and guilt someone has created a one-button version that probably looks like an MRI machine with high intensity waterjets."
Imagine what we would think of a country where candidates for high office and nominees for the highest law enforcement position in the country had earnest debates about whether or not the rack was torture ("hey, I do stretching exercises before I go jogging, and it doesn't hurt me!"), or whether disembowelling living prisoners shocked the conscience ("I had my appendix out, and I'm doing just fine!") We would think that the people who said such things had utterly lost their humanity. Yet for some reason, altogether too many of our fellow citizens seem to think that it is perfectly acceptable for politicians and their appointees to have the same debates about waterboarding. I suspect that future generations, and the current inhabitants of other countries, will regard this the same way we would regard people who took it to be an open question whether the rack was torture: with abhorrence.
To quote Nance again:
"We live at a time where Americans, completely uninformed by an incurious media and enthralled by vengeance-based fantasy television shows like “24”, are actually cheering and encouraging such torture as justifiable revenge for the September 11 attacks. Having been a rescuer in one of those incidents and personally affected by both attacks, I am bewildered at how casually we have thrown off the mantle of world-leader in justice and honor. Who we have become? Because at this juncture, after Abu Ghraieb and other undignified exposed incidents of murder and torture, we appear to have become no better than our opponents."