During an interview with ABC News, President Trump once again reiterated his support for “torture” against terrorists, specifically enhanced interrogation methods such as waterboarding. Trump said:
I want to keep our country safe…When they’re shoot…When they’re chopping off the heads of our people and other people. When they’re chopping off the heads of people because they happen to be a Christian in the Middle East, when ISIS is doing things that nobody has ever heard of since medieval times, would I feel strongly about waterboarding? As far as I’m concerned, we have to fight fire with fire.”
Before allowing reporters everywhere to recover from their collective gasps of disbelief, he continued:
I will rely on Pompeo and Mattis and my group. And if they don’t want to do, that’s fine. If they do wanna do, then I will work toward that end. I want to do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally,”
Trump has widely said this during the course of his campaign, so it should come to no surprise that he reiterated his stance during the interview. However, it is common for elected leaders to say one thing during the campaign but “moderate” after getting into office. And this comes in stark contrast with the views of his nominees. Secretary of Defense Mattis said back in November,
I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.”
During his confirmation hearing to become CIA director, Pompeo faced questions regarding his willingness to re-institute enhanced interrogation techniques. He replied,
Absolutely not. Moreover, I can’t imagine I would be asked that by the president-elect. There is no doubt in my mind about the limitations placed not only on the DOD but on the intelligence agency, and I’ll always comply with the law.”
There may be officials in the CIA and other agencies that are more favorable toward Trump’s view, but so far most senior officials in his cabinet have either tacitly or publicly come out against the use of “torture.” If President Trump does allow enhanced interrogation to resume under his watch, the question shouldn’t be if that decision is right or wrong, rather, if it is legally and politically possible to do so. The short answer is no.
Legally and Politically Shackled
Since the program of enhanced interrogation was spearheaded by the CIA in the aftermath of the 9/11, we have slowly seen the courts, legislative, and finally the executive branch under former President Obama walk back the program to the point it has been effectively halted. The Supreme Court through various cases extended certain Constitutional rights to detainees (deemed enemy combatants) with Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2004) and later Boumediene v. Bush (2008). The legislative branch responded in kind with the Detainee Treatment Act (2005), Military Commissions Act (2006 and 2009), with the Senate finally attaching an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (2015) further prohibiting any enhanced interrogation techniques. Obama, shortly after taking office, viewed it as a “dark and painful chapter” in US history and used Executive Orders to ban the techniques.
Even if Trump can legally use his authority to overcome Obama’s ban, he more or less requires support from Congress to reinstate the programs. Even with Republican control of both House and Senate, key officials such as Senator McCain (R-AZ) have come out against any use of enhanced interrogation, and even Republican leadership seem tepid at the idea.
In 2014, the Senate, spearheaded by Senator Feinstein (D-CA) issued a scathing 6000 page report against the CIA, claiming the agency mislead officials and the public about the success of enhanced interrogation and charged the agency of various acts of mismanagement and torture beyond what they were authorized. The report also claimed that there was no evidence that any terrorist plot was disrupted. In response, the CIA and Republican party released a “minority report” rebutting these charges with their own assessment of the program. Regardless of what conclusion you may draw, the program has become a highly partisan issue where the definition of “torture” even becomes fluid.
In the conclusion to my interrogation series, I give my brief opinion on enhanced interrogations and Gitmo. I don’t wish to explore the pros and cons, but at this point, the question of whether or not enhanced interrogation is effective is now moot. The well has long been poisoned. The case of Abu Ghraib overshadowed the entire endeavor, even though the acts of abuse had no connection to interrogations. The political rancor in DC regarding interrogations has been exploited to its fullest extent, now that names have been released, leaks sprung to the media, and personal animosity getting in the way of any objectivity . The default mindset from now on is to direct all intelligence agencies to refer to the Army FM 2-22.3 Human Intelligence Operations as a guide. Even if Trump says otherwise, I doubt his statement will spur any efforts to reinstate the program. Outside of any extenuating circumstances, I see very few three-letter agents or officials willing to risk their career, name, or safety in case the political winds shift the other way once more.
Although we continue to see plots disrupted and “lone wolf” attacks, we haven’t seen a devastating attack mirroring 9/11 ever since that fateful September day. We can credit it to various actions taken by our law enforcement agencies and military both here and abroad. But these successes can conjure a “Catch 22” scenario where few big attacks on the continental United States means our methods and vigilance can be downgraded. Only another terrorist attack along the likes of 9/11 might make Washington and the public overcome their hesitation to use enhanced interrogations. Maybe that’s for the best, but it’s a scenario I hope we don’t have to witness again.
(Image above courtesy of ABC News)