PHILADELPHIA—With all the talk of CIA black sites, enhanced interrogation techniques, and a Cheney defending it all, the Republican congressional retreat on Wednesday was a flashback to the bygone Bush administration era.
“I’m in support of enhanced interrogation, I think it’s something that has clearly helped us in the past to prevent attacks and save lives,” Republican Rep. Liz Cheney said at an annual gathering of GOP lawmakers. “Frankly, I think it’s the responsibility of any chief executive, any commander in chief, to use any tool at our disposal to make sure we save lives.”
This political time travel was brought to you by a draft presidential order that is circulating inside the Trump administration, and obtained by The Washington Post and New York Times.
The proposal would review whether CIA black sites, where terrorists were brutally questioned in the early years of the Global War on Terror, should be brought back, and whether more aggressive interrogation techniques should be used against suspects.
Republicans have largely turned the page on these techniques—until now. Authorized “enhanced interrogation techniques”—used in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks—included beating, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding.
But after less than a week of the Donald Trump administration, some Republicans are already flirting with torture again. Trump’s position on torture is part of a broader assault on expertise and common sense. The vast majority of the national security and legal establishment, from left to right, agree that torture is ineffective. But in a flash, it’s up for debate again.
“My view is that [enhanced interrogation techniques] should be in the hip pocket in extreme emergencies, if you have a time-sensitive thing, but it should not be what we revert to, as a military guy,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican defense hawk, told The Daily Beast. “[T]o rule it out entirely is short-sighted, because you never know what situation may arise where there are hundreds or thousands of lives at risk.”
Serious abuses occurred the last time the United States used secret black sites to interrogate suspected terrorists. A years-long Senate investigation culminated in the “Torture Report,” which revealed that detainees were waterboarded, subjected to forced “rectal feeding,” made to stand on broken legs, kept in prolonged periods of darkness, held in stress positions, and compelled to walk around naked.
These brutal techniques never yielded any intelligence about imminent terrorist attacks, and information gained through the program could have been obtained through other means, the Senate report concluded.
“The enhanced interrogation program provided some of the information, some of the evidence that led us to locate, capture, kill bin Laden,” Cheney alleged Wednesday.
It’s a hotly contested claim—the Senate report disputes this. And fellow Republican John McCain, himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War, has insisted that torture did not yield the information that allowed the United States to track and kill Osama bin Laden—in fact, waterboarding 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed led him to provide false information, McCain said.
Asked by The Daily Beast to provide evidence for the claim, Cheney attacked the Senate report and said, “It’s a claim that’s been affirmed by people on both sides of the aisle.”
Congress passed a law in 2015, authored by McCain and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to prohibit the use or threat of force in interrogations—the measure passed with three-quarters of the Senate backing it.
“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,” McCain said on Wednesday.
But now the potential for Trump’s new executive order is threatening to re-expose a fissure within the Republican Party: between those who support “enhanced interrogation techniques” and those who don’t.
Employing waterboarding again “would take a change in the law, and Congress is on record… this is a debate we’ve had already,” Senate Republican Conference Chair John Thune told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “With respect to torture, that’s banned… we view that to be a matter of settled law.”
Even among Trump’s national security team, there is a wide divergence of views. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Trump, while interviewing for the job, that building rapport with detainees was more effective than using waterboarding.
Trump disagreed, but still chose Mattis to lead the Pentagon.
The president campaigned on reintroducing waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse” to America’s interrogation techniques. And he continued to make his position clear in an interview on Wednesday. Citing unnamed experts, which may not exist, he said that “torture”—not the wishy-washy term of “enhanced interrogation techniques”—was an effective tool.
“I have spoken, as recently as 24 hours ago, with people at the highest level of intelligence and I asked them the question: does torture work?” Trump told ABC. “And the answer was: yes, absolutely.”