Less than five minutes.
That's the total amount of time the United States has waterboarded terrorist detainees. How many detainees? Three. Who were these detainees?
One was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, "the principle architect of the 9/11 attacks" according to the 9/11 Report, and the head of al-Qaeda's "military committee." Linked to numerous terror plots, he is believed to have financed the first World Trade Center bombing, helped set up the courier system that resulted in the infamous Bali bombing, and cut off Danny Pearl's head.
A second was Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the head of al-Qaeda operations in the Persian Gulf. He allegedly played a role in the 2000 millennium terror plots and was the mastermind behind the USS Cole attack that killed 17 Americans.
The third was Abu Zubaydah, said to be Osama bin Laden's top man after Ayman al Zawahri and al-Qaeda's chief logistics operative. It is believed that Zubaydah essentially ran al-Qaeda's terror camps and recruitment operations. After he was waterboarded, Zubaydah reportedly offered intelligence officers a treasure trove of critical information. He was waterboarded just six months after the 9/11 attacks and while the anthrax scare was still ongoing.
John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who witnessed the interrogation, told ABC's Brian Ross: "The threat information that he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."
He divulged, according to Kiriakou, "al-Qaeda's leadership structure" and identified high-level terrorists the CIA didn't know much, if anything, about. It's been suggested that Zubaydah and al-Nashiri's confessions in turn led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
And that's it. Less than five minutes, three awful men, five years ago.
(We don't know how long, exactly, each was waterboarded, but reports suggest that Zubaydah lasted between 30 and 35 seconds, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed lasted the longest between 90 seconds and three minutes.)
The reason these facts are important is simple. For several years, human rights groups, the media and partisan opponents of the Bush administration and the war on terror have tried to portray the U.S. as a "torture state" that has completely abdicated its decency, its principles and even its soul under the leadership of a president who believes in an ominous-sounding "unitary executive" branch. We've been barreling down a "slippery slope," making America indistinguishable from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia.
Yet none of these interrogations were the result of a "rogue" CIA or the mad whims of a "torture presidency." The relevant Democratic congressional leadership for intelligence including current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and former Sen. Bob Graham were briefed on CIA operations more than once. "Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing," Porter Goss, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee from 1997 to 2004 before becoming CIA director, told The Washington Post. "And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement."
As for the slippery-slope caterwauling, the opposite is true. The slope toward more torture and abuse has gone up, not down, and it is today more difficult to climb than ever. According to existing law and Justice Department rulings, the practice has been proscribed for several years now except, that is, for the thousands of U.S. servicemen who've been subjected to it by the U.S. military as part of their training.
The current debate over legislation to ban waterboarding in all circumstances stinks of political opportunism. Democrats want to claim that Republicans are "pro-torture" if they vote against the legislation. Others are hoping to advance criminal prosecutions of CIA operatives who used the techniques sparingly and with approval from both the White House and Congress, and from both parties.
I don't like waterboarding, and I hope we never use it again. I have respect for those who believe it should be banned in all circumstances. But I do not weep that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed spent somewhere between .03 and .06 seconds feeling like he was drowning for every person he allegedly helped murder on 9/11.
Then again, I think it would horrific if we used that logic to justify waterboarding. It's not a technique that should be used for punishment. Nor do I think that evidence obtained from forced confessions should be used in trial. Those are paving stones on the road to a torture state.
But, given the circumstances at the time, I think the decision to waterboard these three men was right and certainly defensible.
The editors of USA Today disagree. They say that the decision to use waterboarding "was understandable in the frenzied aftermath of the 9/11 and anthrax attacks. What's inexplicable, however, is why, after having several years to assess the matter deliberately, the Bush administration continues to resist efforts to ban waterboarding."
It's only inexplicable if you think we'll never have a "frenzied" moment like that again. Let's hope.