Christopher Hitchens' Waterboarding Video Changed Eric Holder's Mind

Sometimes "enhanced interrogation" doesn't feel like torture until you see it happening to someone you can relate to.

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Sometimes "enhanced interrogation" doesn't feel like torture until you see it happening to someone you can relate to. For Attorney General Eric Holder, that meant watching Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens undergo the technique in 2008 for his essay "Believe Me, It's Torture." Reading Hitchens's disturbing testimonial and accompanying video moved Holder to launch an investigation of the Bush-era interrogation practice, according to Dan Klaidman's new book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. An excerpt of the book, which comes out tomorrow, appeared in Mike Allen's Playbook this morning:

Holder was at home catching up on his reading when he came across an article in Vanity Fair magazine by Christopher Hitchens, in which the writer and critic described what it was like to be waterboarded. Hitchens had arranged to be 'abducted' by a team of security contractors in a rural part of North Carolina. They hooded him, placed him in a dark room, and strapped him to a sloping board, positioned so that his head was lower than his heart. They placed a thick towel over his hooded face and proceeded to pour water into his nostrils, a managed-drowning technique.

After reading the article, Holder viewed the accompanying video online, at Vanity Fair's website. He sat in his study, engrossed in the macabre spectacle. Hitchens lasted for fewer than ten seconds before asking for mercy, sputtering and gagging as the cloth used in the demonstration was removed from his mouth. Watching the video, Holder was both mesmerized and repulsed. Over the next few weeks he plunged into classified reports and briefings on the CIA's interrogation program. He was increasingly convinced that he would need to launch an investigation, or at least a preliminary inquiry to determine whether a full-blown probe was warranted.

Influencing the U.S. attorney general on such a high-profile issue is obviously something Hitchens would be proud of were he alive today. (The prolific essayist died last year of esophageal cancer.) Hitchens, a supporter of the invasion of Iraq and, to some, a man who glossed over some of the torture atrocities in Abu Ghraib, made a compelling case against the practice after undergoing it:

Torture critics, however, will be quick to point out that whatever effect this video had on Holder, it wasn't enough to harden his spine in the face of pressure from hawks in Congress. In June of last year, Holder ended the Justice Department's wide-ranging probe into the CIA's interrogation, rendition and detention practices as Gen. David Petraeus was confirmed as the next CIA director. “The department has determined that an expanded criminal investigation of the remaining matters is not warranted,” Holder said in a statement. At the time, critics such as House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers praised the move. “I hope that this decision will allow our intelligence professionals to move forward with their critical work free from the chilling effect of further investigation and with the deserved full confidence of the American people." But it meanwhile left civil libertarians bristling that CIA officials who abused detainees wouldn't be brought to justice.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.