President Donald Trump’s renewed embrace of torture in the fight against Islamic extremism sets up a heated dispute with a long line of opponents both at home and abroad of Bush-era interrogation policies and CIA-run “black site” prisons.
“We have to fight fire with fire,” Trump told ABC in an interview aired Wednesday after several news organizations obtained a copy of a draft executive order that signals sweeping changes to U.S. interrogation and detention policy.
The draft order would reverse President Barack Obama’s order to close the military detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — a place Trump has said he wants to fill up “with bad dudes.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said it was his understanding that the draft order was written by someone who had earlier worked on the Trump transition team.
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It orders up recommendations on whether the U.S. should reopen CIA detention facilities outside the United States. Critics said the clandestine sites marred America’s image on the world stage.
The draft directive also orders a review of interrogation methods used on terror suspects and calls for suggested modifications that would not violate the U.S. legal ban on torture.
Trump, who has pushed for tougher interrogation techniques, said he would consult with new Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo before authorizing any new policy. But he said he had asked top intelligence officials: “Does torture work? And the answer was ‘Yes, absolutely.’ ”
When asked specifically about waterboarding, an interrogation method that simulates drowning, Trump cited the extremist group’s atrocities against Christians and others and said he wanted to do “everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally.”
Provisions of the draft order are not surprising based on Trump’s remarks on the campaign trail. Trump spoke emphatically about toughening the U.S. approach to fighting Islamic State militants, saying he would re-authorize waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse.”
However, many intelligence and military officials, human rights groups and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have widely disputed Trump’s claim that harsh interrogation methods are effective in getting critical intelligence from detainees.
The AP obtained the draft order from a U.S. official, who said it had been distributed by the White House for consultations before Trump signs it. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the draft order was “not a White House document.”
Whatever changes to U.S. interrogation and detention policy that Trump eventually proposes will face political, practical and statutory hurdles.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was beaten as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, will be Trump’s most formidable foe on Capitol Hill.
“The president can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America,” said McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush authorized a covert program that led to dozens of detainees being held in secret locations overseas and to interrogation tactics that included sleep deprivation, slapping and slamming against walls, confinement in small boxes, prolonged isolation and even death threats. Three detainees faced waterboarding. Many developed psychological problems.
Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, said: “America paid a high price for its trip to the dark side. Our allies grew reluctant to cooperate with us and our enemies gained a potent recruitment tool that drew foreign fighters to the battlefield who killed American soldiers.”
While some former government officials insist the program was effective, many others say the abuses weakened America’s moral standing in the world and hurt morale among intelligence officers before Obama shut it down. They say harsh interrogation techniques break down trust with a suspect and often prompt them to say anything to stop the harsh treatment.
Retired General Charles C. Krulak, former commandant of the Marine Corps, said reviving torture is illegal, harms U.S. national security and betrays American ideals.
Krulak was one of 176 retired high-ranking officers, including 33 four-star generals and admirals, who sent a letter to Trump in October urging him to denounce torture.
Besides scrapping Obama’s order to close Guantánamo, the draft order would revoke other Obama directives that closed the CIA detention facilities, gave the International Red Cross timely access to all detainees and prohibited the U.S. from using any interrogation technique not listed in the Army Field Manual.
Among the interrogation techniques banned by the manual were forced nakedness, hooding, beatings, sexual humiliation, threatening with dogs, mock executions, electric shocks, burning and waterboarding.
Wanting to ensure that no future president could simply tear up that order, McCain teamed up with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to turn it into law.
Their anti-torture amendment, which was adopted in a 78-21 bipartisan vote and became law late last year, requires the Army to conduct a review of the field manual every three years in consultation with the attorney general, the FBI director and the director of national intelligence. The first review deadline is Dec. 19.
Trump could rewrite the field manual to include harsher interrogation techniques, but whatever is added cannot “involve the use or threat of force,” according to the current law.
That could bring the argument down to the definition of whether waterboarding or extreme stress positions, for example, constitute a “use or threat of force,” said Robert Chesney, professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
Pompeo, Trump’s CIA director, said in his confirmation hearing that he would abide by all laws. But he also said he’d consult with CIA and other government experts on whether current restrictions on interrogation were an “impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country or whether any rewrite of the Army Field Manual is needed.”
Feinstein implored Trump not to formally issue the draft order until he reads the 6,700-page, classified version of the Senate intelligence committee’s report on CIA detention and interrogation.
“Capturing terrorist suspects and torturing them in secret facilities failed. Period. The classified version of the report details how the program failed,” she said.
Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, said at a GOP congressional retreat in Philadelphia Wednesday that “frankly I think it’s the responsibility of any chief executive, any commander in chief, to make sure we use every tool at our disposal to make sure we save lives, understanding it’s not torture.” She is the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, known for advocating enhanced interrogation techniques in George W. Bush’s administration.