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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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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.