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In one of her best essays, “History by the Ounce,” published in Harper’s back in July 1965, Barbara Tuchman talks about the role of characteristic detail in providing an historical account. William Howard Taft, an American president who came to embody the age of excess, weighed in excess of 300 pounds. But how could this be effectively transmitted in a piece about Taft? That requires what she called the “corroborating detail.” She furnishes an example. One day, following an illness, Taft went out for a ride on his horse. He telegraphed Elihu Root saying he was “feeling fine.” To which Root promptly replied, “How is the horse feeling?”
Today Robert Windrem, writing in the Daily Beast, furnishes what will eventually emerge as an essential corroborating detail of the Bush program of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The question is simple: how many bottles does it take to waterboard a prisoner?
In administering the Bush White House’s most infamous “enhanced interrogation” procedure, waterboarding, CIA questioners employed a civilized tool for a brutal task—bottled water, sometimes straight from the fridge. Current and former intelligence officials and testimony of two suspects themselves reveal this detail, one of many that help clarify how detainees underwent this procedure. A leading Bush administration official, retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, says that the numbers associated with CIA waterboarding sessions—such as 183 times for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and 83 times for al Qaeda training camp commander Abu Zubaydah—may even reflect the number of water bottles expended.
Apparently, four or five bottles were used per session. Wilkerson credits the information to a report from the Red Cross, but we can trace it back to Jay Bybee’s memorandums and those of his colleagues at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who paid close attention to the volume and flow of water used in the waterboarding process.
And there is another “corroborating detail” in Windrem’s story. Some of the bottles used had labels with an email address ending in “.pl,” suggesting that they were Polish waterbottles. That could mean that waterboarding was carried out in Poland, a fact which may prove of strong interest to criminal investigators in Poland now looking into charges that prisoners were tortured at one or more black sites maintained by the CIA on Polish soil.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
Years ago, I lived in Montana, a land of purple sunsets, clear streams, and snowflakes the size of silver dollars drifting through the cold air. There were no speed limits and you could legally drive drunk. My small apartment in Missoula had little privacy. In order to write, I rented an off-season fishing cabin on Rock Creek, a one-room place with a bed and a bureau. I lacked the budget for a desk. My idea was to remove a sliding door from a closet in my apartment and place it over a couple of hastily cobbled-together sawhorses.
Average number of bacteria living in a pound of U.S. mud:
Canadian doctors saved a baby from drowning in his own drool by using Botox on his salivary glands.
A black bear named Pedals, famous for walking upright on his hind legs through Rockaway Township, New Jersey, was reported killed by a hunter, and a hiker in California was attacked after he interrupted two bears mating. It was a “pretty good bear attack,” said the local police chief.
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"She never thanked me, never looked at me—melted away into the miserable night, in the strangest manner I ever saw. I have seen many strange things, but not one that has left a deeper impression on my memory than the dull impassive way in which that worn-out heap of misery took that piece of money, and was lost."