George W. Bush's casual acknowledgment Wednesday that he had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed waterboarded -- and would do it again -- has horrified some former military and intelligence officials who argue that the former president doesn't seem to understand the gravity of what he is admitting.
Waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning, is "unequivocably torture", said retired Brigadier General David R. Irvine, a former strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner of war interrogation and military law for 18 years.
"As a nation, we have historically prosecuted it as such, going back to the time of the Spanish-American War," Irvine said. "Moreover, it cannot be demonstrated that any use of waterboarding by U.S. personnel in recent years has saved a single American life."
Irvine told the Huffington Post that Bush doesn't appreciate how much harm his countenancing of torture has done to his country.
"Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed," Bush told a Grand Rapids audience Wednesday, of the self-professed 9/11 mastermind. "I'd do it again to save lives."
But, Irvine said: "When he decided to do it the first time, he launched the nation down a disastrous road, and we will continue to pay dearly for the damage his decision has caused.
"We are seen by the rest of the world as having abandoned our commitment to international law. We have forfeited enormous amounts of moral leadership as the world's sole remaining superpower. And it puts American troops in greater danger -- and unnecessary danger."
James P. Cullen, a retired brigadier general in the United States Army Reserve Judge Advocate General's Corps, told HuffPost that the net effect of Bush's remarks -- and former Vice President Cheney's before him -- is "to establish a precedent where it will be permissible to our enemies to use waterboarding on our servicemen in future wars.
Cheney famously once agreed with an interviewer that "a dunk in the water" was "no-brainer" if it saves lives.
"This is not the last war we're going to fight," Cullen said. "Americans not yet born are going to be prisoners of war in those conflicts. And our enemies are going to be able to point back to President Bush and Vice President Cheney saying that waterboarding is OK.
"It's just shocking to me how he can be so flip about something that is so serious," Cullen said.
Matthew Alexander, the pseudonymous former Air Force interrogator and author of "How To Break A Terrorist" e-mailed HuffPost that Bush's statement "is de facto approval of the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers in Iraq who were killed by foreign fighters that Al Qaida recruited based on the President's policy of torture and abuse of detainees.
"At least now we know where the blame for those soldiers' deaths squarely belongs. President Bush's decision broke with a military tradition dating back to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War and the consequences are clear: Al Qaida is stronger and our country is less safe."
Cullen and Irvine are among 15 former military and intelligence officials currently working with Human Rights First in Pennsylvania, meeting with congressional candidates from both parties to help inform them about issues of prisoner treatment and interrogation.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.
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