It stuns me that we are still having a debate, as a country, over whether or not what the Bush Administration did to detainees in the war on terror was actually torture. I would hope that this helps settle things. The fact-checking outfit called PolitiFact confirms that a McCain statement from 2007, dredged up recently by Paul Begala, is accurate:
"I forgot to mention last night that following World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding," [McCain] told reporters at a campaign event.
"If the United States is in another conflict ... and we have allowed that kind of torture to be inflicted upon people we hold captive, then there is nothing to prevent that enemy from also torturing American prisoners."
McCain is referencing the Tokyo Trials, officially known as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. After World War II, an international coalition convened to prosecute Japanese soldiers charged with torture. At the top of the list of techniques was water-based interrogation, known variously then as "water cure," "water torture" and "waterboarding," according to the charging documents. It simulates drowning.
R. John Pritchard, a historian and lawyer who is a top scholar on the trials, said the Japanese felt the ends justified the means. "The rapid and effective collection of intelligence then, as now, was seen as vital to a successful struggle, and in addition, those who were engaged in torture often felt that whatever pain and anguish was suffered by the victims of torture was nothing less than the just deserts of the victims or people close to them," he said.
In a recent journal essay, Judge Evan Wallach, a member of the U.S. Court of International Trade and an adjunct professor in the law of war, writes that the testimony from American soldiers about this form of torture was gruesome and convincing. A number of the Japanese soldiers convicted by American judges were hanged, while others received lengthy prison sentences or time in labor camps.
You can argue that the techniques used by Americans on detainees were necessary and, because of the OLC memos, legal. I would disagree with you, but you could plausibly make that argument. What you cannot do any longer is pretend that those techniques do not meet the definition of torture that America has used in the past.
Update: The state of American law on torture.