The centuries-old interrogation technique called waterboarding has once again become a major issue, this time in the confirmation hearings of President Bush’s nominee for attorney general. Is waterboarding a form of torture?

How does the technique work?
There are numerous variations, but a subject generally is bound to an inclined board—with his feet raised and head lowered—while his face is covered with a piece of cloth. The interrogator then pours water over the prisoner’s face in a steady stream, causing the wet material to cling to his mouth and nostrils. As the water pours down, some of it does penetrate the cloth and the nostrils and trickles down into the lungs, and the panicky prisoner bucks and gasps for air. Few people can hold out very long. CIA personnel who have undergone the experience as part of their training have lasted an average of only 14 seconds before pleading for it to stop. “When you’re waterboarded, you’re inverted, so it exacerbates the fear,” said one CIA agent. “It’s not painful, but it scares the s--- out of you.”

Why is it so terrifying?
The feeling of water filling your nose and throat triggers a primal survival mechanism, and prisoners become desperate to escape. But they can’t move or hold their breath for long, and as they fight for air, the torrent of water overwhelms their gag reflex, making them feel as if they are dying. “They poured water on this towel until I was almost unconscious from strangulation,” former U.S. prisoner of war Lt. Col. Chase Nielsen testified at a war crimes trial of the Japanese in 1942. “I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.” While waterboarding is often described as “simulated” drowning, it’s more accurately described as “controlled’’ drowning, said Malcolm Nance, former chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School in San Diego. “The victim is drowning,’’ Nance said. “How much the victim is to endure depends on the desired result, in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face, and the obstinacy of the subject.”

Who came up with this technique?
It was first used during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s on people suspected of holding Jewish, Protestant, or other heretical beliefs. During World War II, both the Nazis and the Japanese used waterboarding during the interrogation of resistant prisoners. The Khmer Rouge employed waterboarding during its reign of terror in Cambodia. Most recently, the Bush administration authorized CIA interrogators to use waterboarding as one of several “enhanced interrogation techniques” for prisoners captured in the war on terrorism.

Does waterboarding work?
No one can withstand waterboarding for long without breaking down. “Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board,” said Nance, whose job involved training American personnel to try to resist waterboarding. The usefulness of the information elicited, however, is very much in debate. When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, was waterboarded, he revealed valuable details about the operations of al Qaida, the Bush administration says. But CIA agents say Mohammed also “confessed’’ that al Qaida was plotting to kill former presidents Clinton and Carter and Pope John Paul II, making them realize that he was inventing sensational information to satisfy his interrogators. Another al Qaida operative who was waterboarded, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libbi, blurted out details about the connection between al Qaida and Saddam Hussein, saying that Iraq had trained terrorists in the use of chemical and biological weapons. But al-Libbi later recanted, and the CIA concluded that he “had no knowledge of such training or weapons, and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.”

Is waterboarding considered torture?
For decades, it’s been banned by both international law and U.S. policy. In fact, the U.S. has historically treated waterboarding as a criminal act. During the Spanish-American War, Maj. Edwin Glenn used the technique on Filipino insurgents and was court-martialed. After World War II, several Japanese soldiers who had waterboarded Allied prisoners drew sentences ranging from hard labor to death. During Vietnam, a U.S. soldier who had waterboarded a North Vietnamese prisoner was given a dishonorable discharge. “I believe that it is torture, very exquisite torture,” said Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam POW. The Bush administration disagrees, defining torture as methods that inflict permanent bodily damage on prisoners, such as beating them or cutting off their fingers or limbs.

Does waterboarding do any lasting damage?
If you include psychological damage, it does. Dr. Allen Keller of the Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City recently testified before Congress that victims of waterboarding are so traumatized they continue to have nightmares, depression, and panic attacks years later. One patient, Keller said, couldn’t take showers and had panic attacks whenever it rained. “The fear of being killed is a terrifying experience,” he said. “These methods are intended to break the prisoners down, to terrify them and cause harm to their psyche, and result in lasting harmful health consequences.”

What does the Bush administration say?
Publicly, it refuses to say anything about waterboarding. But in 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that all prisoners in U.S. captivity must be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. In July, President Bush signed an executive order barring “humiliating and degrading treatment” that any “reasonable person” would deem “beyond the bounds of human decency.” The CIA had stopped waterboarding months earlier and no longer uses the technique, according to unnamed government officials quoted in several recent newspaper stories. Still, the administration won’t say publicly that waterboarding has been banned, on the grounds that it doesn’t want terrorists to know what to expect if they’re captured. “I’m not going to talk about techniques,’’ Bush said last week. “There’s an enemy out there.”