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Memo to President Donald Trump: torture doesn’t work

And guess what? It’s also evil.

Here’s a tip if you want to feel queasy on your morning commute: try watching the combover-with-a-man-attached that now occupies the most powerful office in the world explain why he’s actually quite keen on torture.

In his first TV interview as president, Donald Trump responded to a question about waterboarding by saying:

“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.”

Trump, reports allege, is preparing an executive order that would reintroduce “black sites”: unknown locations at which terrorism suspects are detained.

Torture, he says, “absolutely works”.

Well, according to a 2014 Senate Report into what the CIA euphemistically called its “enhanced interrogation” programme, apparently not.

This report found that interrogators had used a series of brutal and, to most of us, extremely upsetting techniques, including threatening inmates with sexual violence and carrying out “rectal feeding” without any evident medical justification. Detainees were also placed in ice-water baths and told they would only leave the hands of the agency “in a coffin-shaped box”.

Testimony from Majid Khan, a former detainee who subsequently became a witness for the US government, claimed that interrogators poured ice water over his genitals and recorded him naked.

“It is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chaired the committee that produced the report.

Worse? According to the report, no substantial threat was uncovered via the use of the techniques:

At no time did the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques lead to the collection of imminent threat intelligence, such as the hypothetical 'ticking time bomb' information that many believe was the justification for the use of these techniques.

In fact, every one of the most frequently-cited examples of the agency’s success using its “enhanced” techniques was found to be “wrong in fundamental respects”, as a Telegraph report from the time puts it. As former Guantanamo prosecuter David Iglesias put it bluntly in a PBS debate on the topic: “It doesn’t work.”

“As a former war crimes prosecutor, I can tell you, it’s radioactive, and, more importantly, from a realpolitik point of view, it just doesn’t work.”

“Radioactive” is the right word. Not only can torture damage America's reputation overseas, particularly in countries where the US military already has a controversial presence, it can potentially harm relationships with key allies.

Documents released in May 2016 show how the UK’s involvement in “clandestine rendition operations” with foreign agencies during Tony Blair’s premiership led to a prolonged rift in the UK intelligence community. As a Guardian report explains:

The head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, was so incensed when she discovered the role played by MI6 in abductions that led to suspected extremists being tortured, she threw out a number of her sister agency’s staff and banned them from working at MI5’s headquarters, Thames House.

If Trump attempts to restore torture – sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – to the official CIA playbook, he risks endangering the close ties between the US and UK intelligence agencies.

Any attempt to reinstate the programme will cause Trump domestic problems, too. Already, Trump’s cabinet has split on torture, with CIA chief Mike Pompeo saying he would “absolutely not” restart the use of enhanced interrogation tactics.

Senator John McCain, who was subject to intensive torture including rope bindings and repeated beatings during his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in northern Vietnam, has unequivocally told Trump that the US is “not bringing back torture”. In 2015, McCain helped bring in bipartisan legislation limiting permissible interrogation techniques to those listed in the Army Field Manual, a law he quoted today:

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.

The legislation was put in place not only because of torture’s apparent ineffectiveness but because it “diminishes us morally”.

Different people hold different beliefs about the relative morality of torture. Yet there is something to be said for McCain's red line. What a state is willing to sanction in exceptional cases often ends up informing its behaviour in ordinary circumstances. For some things, the best answer to when they’re allowed is “never”.

It is this moral dimension that makes Trump's comments so shocking. When Donald Trump says “we’re not fighting fire with fire”, what he means is “we’re not behaving the same way because we think the way they behave is evil”. To me, that sounds like a good thing. To Trump: apparently not.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left