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By Sean Gorman January 12, 2015

Bobby Scott: After WWII U.S. executed Japanese for war crimes including waterboarding

Rep. Bobby Scott was appalled by the findings of a Senate report detailing the enhanced interrogation methods used by the Central Intelligence Agency in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The Senate report detailed many instances when the U.S. waterboarded suspected terrorists, a drowning-like procedure in which interrogators covered detainees’ faces with a cloth and doused them with water, sometimes until they fell unconscious.

Scott, D-3rd, denounced the waterboarding as a torture method inconsistent with the United States’ image as a "moral authority" and said the report shows the country "failed to lead by example."

"After World War II, we tried, convicted, and in some cases, executed Japanese soldiers for war crimes that included charges of waterboarding," Scott said in a Dec. 9 news release.

We wondered if Scott’s war history is correct. His spokesman, Dave Dailey, supported Scott’s statement by pointing to previous fact checks of similar claims, including one by PolitiFact National of a statement that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.,made in 2007 and another claim that former Vice President Dick Cheney made last year.

The claims harken back to the mid to late 1940s when officials of the Axis powers were tried and  convicted, and some executed, for a wide range of war crimes.

The term "waterboarding" didn’t exist then, but the allegations levelled by prosecutors and U.S. POWs against Japanese military officials referred to techniques called "water torture," "water treatments" and "water cure."

The procedures were described in a 2007 essay by Evan Wallach, an attorney who specialized in the laws of war and later was appointed by President Barack Obama as a federal appeals court judge. Wallach wrote his essay in response to a 2002 Justice Department memo that said CIA waterboarding didn’t constitute torture.

Wallach noted that at one of the most well-known Pacific theater post-war trials -- The Tokyo War Crimes Trials by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East -- the records show water torture was generally inflicted in two ways. In one method, the victim was restrained on his back and water was poured on a cloth that had been placed over his nose and mouth. In other cases, a prisoner would be tied to a ladder and slid into a tub of water until he almost drowned.

During a 1947 war crimes trial in Yokohama, Wallach wrote that several officials of a Japanese prison camp were convicted of two incidents of strapping down U.S. prisoners and forcing water up their noses and in their mouths.

Supporters of the President George W. Bush-era interrogation techniques have said that the CIA’s waterboarding was not as harsh as the torture used by Japanese soldiers. Bush adviser Karl Rove said in a Dec. 14 Fox News interview that in Japan’s case, the method was used to drown the person. Rove said the CIA version was merely done to inflict panic and fear rather than pain and suffering.

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Wallach, in his essay, saw little difference between Imperial Japan’s use of the procedure and its modern iteration under former president Bush. The judge took issue with media reports that the technique merely simulates drowning saying "waterboarding is real drowning that simulates death."

We contacted three other war crimes analysts who echoed Wallach’s finding  that the U.S. prosecuted Japanese soldiers for offenses that included waterboarding.

The next step, in evaluating Scott’s claim, is determining whether the U.S. executed any Japanese soldiers who waterboarded prisoners.

David J. Cohen, the founder of the War Crimes Studies Center at the University of California at Berkeley, said the U.S. military convicted Japanese POW camp officials for a wide range of offenses from severe beatings, to exposing prisoners to extreme temperatures.

"There were death sentences for torture, and that torture typically consisted of multiple forms of mistreatment, of which water torture was considered one of the most severe," Cohen said in an email.

Wallach, in his essay, wrote that six Japanese generals who ordered and permitted water torture were sentenced to death. He added, however, that those generals were also convicted of many other war crimes -- including conspiracy, aggression and crimes against the peace.

Yuma Totani, a history professor at the University of Hawaii, said she knows of two additional Japanese officers who were executed after U.S. military trials conducted from 1944 to 1946.

"Both accused were found guilty on grounds that they disregarded their duty to take control of subordinate army units, which included kenpeitai (Japanese secret police) that was known to have used various torture methods against detainees at Fort Santiago, the kenpeitai interrogation center at Manila," Totani said in an email. "Waterboarding being one of the commonplace torture methods of kenpeitai, one could argue that these accused were convicted of a charge that included waterboarding as one of the torture methods, commonly applied by the members of their subordinate army units."

Our ruling

Scott said that after World War II, the U.S. tried, convicted, and in some cases executed Japanese soldiers for war crimes that included waterboarding.

There’s little doubt that the U.S. tried and convicted Japanese soldiers for waterboarding. Six Japanese generals who allowed water torture were executed, although we note they faced a long list of additional charges.

Scott qualified his statement to make clear he was referring to executed Japanese military members who faced a variety of war crime charges, including waterboarding, not that they were sentenced to death solely for that offense.

We rate his statement True.

Our Sources

Rep. Bobby Scott, "Scott statement on Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s torture report," Dec. 9, 2014.

Email from David Dailey, spokesman for Rep. Bobby Scott, Dec. 31, 2014.

PolitiFact, "History supports McCain’s stance on waterboarding," Dec. 18, 2007.

The Washington Post Fact Checker, "Cheney’s claim that the U.S. did not prosecute Japanese soldiers for waterboarding," Dec. 16, 2014.

Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, "Drop by Drop: Forgeting the history of water torture in U.S. Courts," 2007.

Evan Wallach op-ed, "Waterboarding used to be a crime," Nov. 4, 2007.

U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, "Committee releases study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program," December, 2014.

Emails from David J. Cohen, the founder of the War Crimes Studies Center at the University of California at Berkeley, Jan. 8-9, 2015.

Email from Elizabeth Ladner Martz, program director of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial Digital exhibit at the University of Virginia’s Arthur J. Morris Law Library, Jan. 7, 2015.

Email from Yuma Totani, history professor at the University of Hawaii, Jan. 7, 2015.

Emails from Wolfgang Form, executive director of the Research and Documentation Center for War Crimes at the University of Marburg, Jan. 7-9, 2015.

National Review Online, "Sorry, Paul Begala -- You’re still wrong," April 25, 2009.

Media Matters, "NRO’s Hemingway gets history wrong in accusing Begala of botching facts," April 24, 2009.

CNS, "Karl Rove: DOJ did not find criminal offenses in waterboarding," Dec. 15, 2014., "Cheney’s tortured facts," Dec. 16, 2014.

Encyclopedia Britannica, "Waterboarding," Feb. 12, 2014.

NPR, "Waterboarding: A tortured history," Nov. 3, 2007.

McClatchy DC, "Despite denials, torture report says waterboarding more widespread than CIA claims," Dec. 11, 2014.

The Washington Post, "Senate CIA report on CIA program details brutality, dishonesty," Dec. 9, 2014.

The Washington Post, "The Senate report renews an old debate: When is torture not ‘torture?’" Dec. 9, 2014.

The New York Times, "Report portrays a broken CIA devoted to a failed approach," Dec. 9, 2014.

Fox News Sunday, "Were the CIA’s enhanced interrogation tactics ‘torture’?," Dec. 14, 2014.

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