Rick Saccone’s uncomfortable views on torture

Did the Republican candidate for the upcoming Pennsylvania special election participate in waterboarding as a form of interrogation in Iraq?

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Rick Saccone

Rick Saccone, the pro-Trump Republican candidate in the March 13 Pennsylvania 18th Congressional district special election, does not have the standard resume you expect from a politician.

Saccone has served as a US Air Force intelligence officer, worked as a television news anchor in South Korea, spent a year as the sole US citizen residing in North Korea, and volunteered to be a civilian Senior Counterintelligence Agent for the US Army in Iraq.

Following his time in Iraq he became an outspoken proponent of what he calls “coercive interrogation.” Although he defines this term to include several relatively innocuous-sounding techniques, like attention grabbing or keeping suspected terrorists up late into the night, there is one practice he also justifies that is considered out-and-out torture throughout much of the world: waterboarding.

Saccone’s torturous definitions

Saccone has written extensively about how “coercive techniques” should not be considered torture, including in his 2008 book, Unseen War in Iraq: Insurgents in the Shadows. He also authored a pro-waterboarding opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun in 2009 in which he wrote:

“Shall we address water-boarding? It is critical to remember that contrary to the portrayal in some media, enhanced techniques were used principally on hardened terrorists who refused to cooperate through rapport building and other noncoercive methods.

“For example, intelligence officials believed Abu Zubaydah, a hardcore terrorist and planner of the 9/11 attacks, retained valuable insight into the inner workings of al-Qaida at the highest levels. He had successfully resisted all other methods of interrogation. However, it is almost impossible to train to resist water-boarding. Ultimately, he lasted 32 seconds. Given this context, I am confident most Americans would not object to using that technique.”

But the reality of Abu Zubaydah’s story is much grimmer and much messier than the straightforward picture Saconne paints in his opinion piece.

Referring to the same example, the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee’s summary report into CIA torture abuses states:

“The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaydah, for example, became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” 

Abu Zubaydah was in fact waterboarded 83 times in total, not just once. And while in CIA custody he lost his left eye.

Even more shocking, Saccone’s narrative about Abu Zubayda resisting conventional interrogation techniques and only giving up valuable information after being waterboarded has now been totally discredited.

Four months after Saccone’s public defence of waterboarding, Abu Zubayda’s FBI interrogator, retired agent Ali Soufan, went public with the truth. He made it clear that Abu Zubayda had been cooperating and providing valuable intelligence before the waterboarding started. In a New York Times article, the he explained the futility of Abu Zubayda’s torture:

“There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.

“The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.”

Saccone keeps banging the drum for coercion

In 2009, when Saccone wrote his opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun, it could perhaps be argued things were different then. After all, it was during the revelations of 2009 that the public consensus that waterboarding was torture was arrived at.

But whatever his thoughts on waterboarding, Saccone continued to press the case for using “coercive interrogation” for at least five more years.

In a somewhat rambling interview Saccone gave in 2014 on Talking Politics in Western Pennsylvania (which airs on Peters Township Community TV), the host Bill Merrell brings up Saccone’s time in Iraq, and his 2008 book on his counterintelligence work there.

Saccone explained his motives for writing the book:

“While all this discussion was going on back home about coercive interrogation versus torture and so forth I found that the media’s coverage of that was poor. And they were presenting an image that just was false, for whatever motive.

“And so I wanted to correct the record and I wanted to talk about – I wanted to tell America how we gather intelligence, why it’s important we use coercive means – not torture – coercive interrogation is different from torture, and what the difference was and correct the definitional problems we were having and how it was portrayed in America…

“I wanted to stick up for the side wasn’t getting much media attention and that was the coercive interrogation side.”

Saccone then goes on to describe hypothetical situations where information is needed from a prisoner to save lives, presenting the classic justification for coercive interrogation (and torture) that has been used throughout history:

“Just imagine you’re trying to prevent your comrades from being killed and innocent civilians from being killed and the person sitting across from you has the information that could help you do that. To what length would you go to get that information? …Should I not make him uncomfortable and allow some innocent people to be killed because he had information that could save them.”

A twenty-year military veteran himself, Bill Merrell replied: “And of course, like you said, my experience in the military, having been in situations where you needed that information, I didn’t care what you did, as long as we got the information.”

Merrell’s remark was met with only silence.

Did Saccone take part in waterboarding?

It is not clear from either the 2009 Baltimore Sun piece or the 2014 television interview if Saccone himself took part in any waterboarding sessions. But in the interview he does make it clear he took an active part in interrogations in Iraq.

To support his qualifications as an expert on the Iraqi insurgency he says:

“I was at the prison and up in Mosul, in the hot spot in northern Iraq interrogating insurgents that we picked up on the battlefield, trying to gather as much information as we could, and trying to protect our bases.”

It is possible that Saccone used “coercive interrogation” in Iraq but stopped short of waterboarding. But the reverse is possible as well, as he clearly thought waterboarding was justified in some interrogations.

If Saccone, as a Senior Counterintelligence Agent, oversaw the use of waterboarding, and if we accept waterboarding as a form of torture, then in a few months time the US Congress could soon be admitting its first member who is an experienced torturer.

But is waterboarding really torture?

Waterboarding was listed as a form of torture in a 2006 United Nations report. It was used as an interrogation technique by the Spanish Inquisition. And by the Nazis. In 1968 the US Army court-marshalled an interrogator for waterboarding a North Vietnamese POW.  And in April 2009 President Obama said, “I believe waterboarding was torture, and it was a mistake.”

But there are two other witnesses who have potentially the most compelling testimony on the subject. One is Senator John McCain, who underwent torture himself as a POW, and wrote in the Washington Post in 2011, “waterboarding, …is a mock execution and thus an exquisite form of torture. As such, they are prohibited by American laws and values, and I oppose them.”

The second witness is former Minnesota governor Jess Ventura, who before he was a governor (and before he was a professional wrestler) served as a Navy Seal and was put thorugh waterboarding as part of his training. In a 2009 interview with Larry King, Ventura said:

“[Waterboarding is] drowning. It gives you the complete sensation that you are drowning. It is no good, because you—I’ll put it to you this way, you give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders. … If it’s done wrong, you certainly could drown. You could swallow your tongue. [It] could do a whole bunch of stuff to you. If it’s done wrong or—it’s torture, Larry. It’s torture.”

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