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The Bush Administration’s Oft-Repeated (and Now Challenged) Waterboarding Claims

A new report contradicts the official claim that only three detainees were waterboarded by the CIA. We lay out the Bush administration officials who have repeated the claim over the years.

For many years, Bush administration officials have said that the CIA waterboarded only three terror suspects. Despite nearly endless revelations and investigations about the U.S.'s treatment of detainees, there has never been evidence contradicting those claims. But that changed earlier this month.

Human Rights Watch recently released a report detailing the accounts of 14 Libyan men who claim they were detained and, in some cases, subject to harsh interrogations by the U.S. before being transferred back to Libyan prisons, where they also faced abuse.

One man, Mohammed Al-Shoreoiya, provided a detailed account of being waterboarded "many times" while in U.S. custody in an Afghan prison between 2003 and 2004. Another man described a similar form of water torture, conducted without a board.

None of the men's accounts could be confirmed, but as the New York Times noted, the detainees did not seek out Human Rights Watch, and their descriptions of their treatment, including waterboarding, are consistent with CIA procedural documents that have been made public.

The CIA first confirmed waterboarding in February 2008, when then-CIA director Michael Hayden told a Senate committee that "only three detainees" had been waterboarded — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zabaydah, and Abd Al Rahim al-Nashiri. No one, he said, had been subjected to the process since 2003. That claim has been repeated by former President George W. Bush and top officials from his administration. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has also noted that the military did not waterboard.

A spokesman for the CIA told ProPublica that "the Agency has been on the record that there are three substantiated cases in which detainees were subjected to the waterboarding technique under the program."

Here are top Bush administration officials stating, again and again, only three detainees were waterboarded [emphasis added]:

George W. Bush

Of the thousands of terrorists we captured in the years after 9/11, about a hundred were placed into the CIA program. About a third of those were questioned using enhanced techniques. Three were waterboarded.

– November 2010, in his memoir, Decision Points.

President Bush also repeated the line in interviews that fall with the Times of London and Fox News.

Dick Cheney, former vice president

It is a fact that only detainees of the highest intelligence value were ever subjected to enhanced interrogation. You've heard endlessly about waterboarding. It happened to three terrorists.

-- May 21, 2009: Dick Cheney, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute.

In 2009, Cheney made the same claim in another speech and in interviews with the Washington Times, CNN and CBS. In 2011, he mentioned it again in a speech at AEI.

Donald Rumsfeld, former defense secretary

[Michael Hayden] looked at all the evidence and concluded that a major fraction of the intelligence in our country on al Qaeda came from individuals, the three, only three people who were waterboarded... no one was waterboarded at Guantanamo by the U.S. military. In fact, no one was waterboarded at Guantanamo, period. Three people were waterboarded by the CIA, away from Guantanamo and then later brought to Guantanamo.

-- May 3, 2011, in an interview with Fox News.

Rumsfeld repeated the line that year in interviews with CNN, CBS, the Associated Press, Charlie Rose and in a speech in February 2012.

Michael Hayden, former CIA director

Let me make it very clear and to state so officially in front of this committee that waterboarding has been used on only three detainees. It was used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it was used on Abu Zubaydah, and it was used on Nashiri. The CIA has not used waterboarding for almost five years. We used it against these three high-value detainees because of the circumstances of the time.

–Feb. 5, 2008, in testimony to a Senate committee.

Hayden also reiterated the three-person figures in a memo circulated that month to CIA employees and on Meet the Press that March. He repeated it again in an interview with Newsweek in 2009.

John Yoo, former Justice Department official

Waterboarding we think is torture, but it happened to three people. The scale of magnitude is different....We've done it three times."

--June 1, 2008, in an interview with Esquire Magazine.

Yoo also said three people had been waterboarded in a June 2008 congressional hearing.

Karl Rove, senior adviser to Bush

[Coercive techniques] were used against some thirty hard-core terrorist detainees who had successfully resisted other forms of interrogation. Only three were waterboarded.

–March 2010, in his memoir, Courage and Consequences.

Michael Mukasey, former attorney general

The fact is that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding — he was one of three people who were waterboarded — did disclose the name — the nickname actually, which was the name that this courier actually used — in the course of the questioning that took place after enhanced interrogation techniques.

--May 17, 2011, in remarks at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jose Rodriguez Jr., former director of the National Clandestine Service at the CIA

In fact, only three detainees: Mohammed, Zubaydah and one other were ever waterboarded, the last one more than nine years ago.

-- May 10, 2012: Jose Rodriguez Jr., in an op-ed on

Rodriguez also mentioned the figure in interviews this spring with Fox News and the New Yorker.

Bill Harlow, who co-authored Rodriguez' book on interrogations, said that Rodriguez stands by his statement. "These procedures were not done without extensive documentation and authorization, as part of an officially approved program, and all the documentation there shows three individuals," Harlow said.

The other officials we've cited did not respond to requests for comment.

President Obama came into office proclaiming a ban on torture, stating that waterboarding was unequivocally a form of torture, and making the infamous "torture memos" public. But the administration has said no one would be prosecuted for waterboarding or other interrogation methods previously sanctioned by the government, and announced last month it would close the last two investigations into CIA abuse.

A Justice Department spokesman would not comment on whether the government ever investigated the Libyan cases. Laura Pitter, the author of the Human Rights Watch report, said that none of the men she interviewed said they had been contacted by U.S. investigators about their detention.

The CIA spokesman said that he could not comment on specific allegations, but that "the Department of Justice has exhaustively reviewed the treatment of more than 100 detainees in the post-9/11 period — including allegations involving unauthorized interrogation techniques — and it declined prosecution in every case."

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