This is a woodcut from Joost De Damhoudere's Praxis Rerum Criminalium, a guide to criminal law as it stood in the 16th century. The woodcut illustrates "the water cure", a method of interrogation. The victim is tied down, their face covered with a cloth, and water is poured into their mouth. It produces a sensation of drowning and asphyxiation, and so encourages the victim to talk. Hence the scribe, ready to take down the confession.
According to numerous sources within the CIA, this is exactly what the US does to "high-value" detainees:
According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.
"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.
The technique is one of six "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA when questioning "high-value" detainees. For the historically-minded, it was also used by the Spanish Inquisition under Torquemada - though unlike the Americans he at least admitted that what he was doing was torture (for the good of people's souls, of course). According to the New York Times, the CIA's Inspector-General is still in denial - though he does admit that the technique "[appears] to constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under the [Geneva] convention"...
The article is unclear about exactly who authorised the use of this technique (though given the CIA's reporting lines, it was either the Director at the time, George Tenet, or his boss, George W. Bush). But it is clear that every use of waterboarding (and other "enhanced" techniques) must be individually authorised by top-level officials:
According to the sources, when an interrogator wishes to use a particular technique on a prisoner, the policy at the CIA is that each step of the interrogation process must be signed off at the highest level — by the deputy director for operations for the CIA. A cable must be sent and a reply received each time a progressively harsher technique is used. The described oversight appears tough but critics say it could be tougher. In reality, sources said, there are few known instances when an approval has not been granted.
Just like the Nazis, they have to document everything. Which is good, because it is cast-iron evidence for later prosecution. There is absolutely no question - despite the CIA Inspector-General's claims - that waterboarding violates the US's federal anti-torture statute, which includes "the threat of imminent death" in its definition of "torture". Under that statute, anyone who conspires to commit torture - by, say, authorising it - is liable to a penalty of life imprisonment. And I can't think of any better evidence for a conspiracy charge than someone's signature on a document which says (in essence) "torture this man".
This is something American excusers of torture need to understand: the US government's torture of detainees doesn't just violate international law - it violates US domestic law as well. And the sooner those responsible are prosecuted and put behind bars for it, the better.