Published April 28, 2009
The New York Times reported last week that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, was waterboarded 183 times in one month by CIA interrogators. The "183 times" was widely circulated by news outlets throughout the world.
It was shocking. And it was highly misleading. The number is a vast inflation, according to information from a U.S. official and the testimony of the terrorists themselves.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the interrogation program told FOX News that the much-cited figure represents the number of times water was poured onto Mohammed's face -- not the number of times the CIA applied the simulated-drowning technique on the terror suspect. According to a 2007 Red Cross report, he was subjected a total of "five sessions of ill-treatment."
"The water was poured 183 times -- there were 183 pours," the official explained, adding that "each pour was a matter of seconds."
The Times and dozens of other outlets wrote that the CIA also waterboarded senior Al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah 83 times, but Zubayda himself, a close associate of Usama bin Laden, told the Red Cross he was waterboarded no more than 10 times.
The memos, spanning from 2002-2005, were a legal review by the Bush administration that approved the use of waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques." Obama banned the procedure on his second day in office, saying that waterboarding is torture.
The memos describe the controversial process: a detainee is strapped to a gurney with his head lowered and a cloth placed on his face. Interrogators pour water onto the cloth, which cuts off air flow to the mouth and nostrils, tripping his gag reflex, causing panic and giving him the sensation that he is drowning.
At that point the cloth would be removed, the gurney rotated upright and the detainee would be allowed to breathe. The technique could be repeated a few times during a waterboarding session; Zubaydah said it was generally used once or twice, but he said he was waterboarded three times during one session.
The Justice Department memos described the maximum allowed use of the waterboard on any detainee, based on tactical training given to U.S. troops to resist interrogations:
-- Five days of use in one month, with no more than two "sessions" in a day;
-- Up to six applications (something like a dunk) lasting more than 10 seconds but less than 40 seconds per session;
-- 12 minutes of total "water application" in a 24-hour period
Bloggers who read the memos last week noted that the CIA's math "doesn't add up" -- meaning that the 12 long pours allowed in a day couldn't add up to the 12 minutes mentioned in the memo, and they could barely even guess how the detainees could have been waterboarded an astounding 286 times in one month.
The memos did not note that the sessions would be made up of a number of short pours -- the ones the U.S. official said lasted "a matter of seconds" -- and that created the huge numbers quoted by the New York Times: 183 on Mohamed, 83 on Zubaydah.
Pours, not waterboards.
A close look at a Red Cross report on the interrogations makes the numbers even clearer.
As the Red Cross noted: "The suffocation procedure was applied [to Abu Zubaydah] during five sessions of ill-treatment ... in 2002. During each session, apart from one, the suffocation technique was applied once or twice; on one occasion it was applied three times."
The total number of applications: between eight and 10 -- not the 83 mentioned in the Times.
Mohammed similarly told the Red Cross that "I was also subjected to 'water-boarding' on five occasions, all of which occurred during the first month." Those were his five "sessions"; the precise number of applications is not known but is a fraction of the 183 figure.
All of those individual pours were scrupulously counted by the CIA, according to the memos, to abide by the procedures set up for the waterboardings.
"[I]t is important that every application of the waterboard be thoroughly documented: how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process," read a memo from May 10, 2005.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the only other detainee known to be waterboarded, was not discussed in the memos.
The Times wrote that until the release of the memos, "the precise number" of 286 total waterboardings was not known.
And the precise number of waterboarding sessions is still not known. What is known is that Mohammed was not waterboarded 183 times.
FOX News correspondent Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.