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.