While meeting with the New York Times last month, President-electDonald Trump was asked about waterboarding. He explained that Gen. James Mattis, his choice for Defense secretary, said he “never found it to be useful.” The general reportedly advised, “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that.” At the risk of making a man nicknamed Mad Dog mad, I have to respectfully disagree.
Gen. Mattis, a retired Marine four-star, is by all accounts a gentleman, a scholar, and a hell of a warfighter. I have the greatest respect for him, and the full nuance of his views might have been lost in the retelling. But on the subject of questioning terrorists, I have some practical experience. In 2002 I was contracted by the Central Intelligence Agency to help put together what became its enhanced-interrogation program. I spent much of the following six years at “black sites” around the world, trying to extract lifesaving information from some of the worst people on the planet.
It is understandable that Gen. Mattis would say he never found waterboarding useful, because no one in the military has been authorized to waterboard a detainee. Thousands of U.S. military personnel have been waterboarded as part of their training, though the services eventually abandoned the practice after finding it too effective in getting even the most hardened warrior to reveal critical information.
During the war on terror, the CIA alone had been authorized to use the technique. I personally waterboarded the only three terrorists subjected to the tactic by the CIA. I also waterboarded two U.S. government lawyers, at their request, when they were trying to decide for themselves whether the practice was “torture.” They determined it was not.
I volunteered to be waterboarded myself and can assure you that it is not a pleasant experience. But no one volunteers to be tortured.