Did CNN's Paul Begala Mangle the Facts on Waterboarding History?

CNN’s Anderson Cooper pushed down hard on the totalitarian analogies in a Monday night segment on Bush "torture" policy, comparing our handling of terrorist interrogations to the Nazis (stress positions) and the Khmer Rouge (waterboarding). In a debate with former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, Paul Begala brought his furrowed eyebrows and moral outrage to the set:

Our country executed Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American POWs. We executed them for the same crime that we are now committing ourselves. How do you defend that?

Over at The Corner on National Review, Mark Hemingway suggested Begala was mangling the historical facts:

What Begala said isn't true. Begala appears to be referencing Yukio Asano, a Japanese soldier convicted of war crimes. His case was popularized — in the context of waterboarding — by Ted Kennedy. See this Washington Post article from 2006:

"Asano was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told his colleagues last Thursday during the debate on military commissions legislation. "We punished people with 15 years of hard labor when waterboarding was used against Americans in World War II," he said.

Not only was Asano not executed, but his 15-year sentence was for a host of crimes besides waterboarding. According to the U.C. Berkeley War Crimes center:

Docket Date: 53/ May 1 - 28, 1947, Yokohama, Japan

Charge: Violation of the Laws and Customs of War: 1. Did willfully and unlawfully mistreat and torture PWs. 2. Did unlawfully take and convert to his own use Red Cross packages and supplies intended for PWs.

Specifications: beating using hands, fists, club; kicking; water torture; burning using cigarettes; strapping on a stretcher head downward

So Asano beat people with clubs and burned them with cigarettes — and I think there's no real debate about whether that consitutes torture. But wait, there's more. Asano practiced a much more severe form of waterboarding, according to the Post:

Twenty-one years earlier, in 1947, the United States charged a Japanese officer, Yukio Asano, with war crimes for carrying out another form of waterboarding on a U.S. civilian. The subject was strapped on a stretcher that was tilted so that his feet were in the air and head near the floor, and small amounts of water were poured over his face, leaving him gasping for air until he agreed to talk.

In waterboarding as it is practiced by the U.S., cellophane or cloth is placed over the subject's mouth to keep water out of nose and mouth. Asano was pouring water directly into the mouths and noses of subjects which is considerably more harsh and dangerous.

I don't think that any of this settles the debate over whether waterboarding as it was practiced by the CIA is or is not torture, but Begala certainly doesn't know what he's talking about. And it's certainly not accurate to say that the U.S. punished war ciminals from other countries for the same enhanced interrogation techniques we committed in the wake of 9/11.

For his part, after a pregnant pause (perhaps Fleischer was waiting for Anderson Cooper to make another Nazi comparison), Fleischer responded strongly:

Well, again, Paul, I guess you already are the jury, the prosecutor, the judge, and a citizen all rolled into one. You have already pronounced judgment that it is a crime.

So, if it is a crime, my question goes back to. Which Democrat members of Congress who sat in on the briefings, were authorized, were told about it, while -- particularly at a time when the Democrats had the majority in the Senate, would you say need to be prosecuted, Paul?

Hemingway noted a bloggers at the Daily Kos loved Ari's pause, as if he was utterly dumbfounded by Begala's brilliance. But his retort hit right where Mark Levin was focusing on his radio show last night: who will be prosecuted? Levin expressed the hope that he would get to represent a target of these prosecutions, so he can put the legal thumbscrews on the Democrats who apparently let all of this "torture" commence.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis