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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 head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.