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Editorial: Trump needs to stop sending mixed messages on torture

Demonstrators wearing orange jumpsuits and hoods protest the "shame and torture done in the name of the United States" during an Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace rally in downtown Los Angeles in 2011.
(Los Angeles Times)

One of the applause lines of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was his suggestion that he would bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Trump later drew back to some degree from that sickening suggestion, but the idea that his administration might subject suspected terrorists to torture keeps resurfacing.

This week it was reported that a draft executive order is circulating that contemplates modifications in interrogation practices and implies that limits in current law are too restrictive. Equally ominous, the document also floats the idea of re-establishing overseas detention centers operated by the CIA at which “high-value alien terrorists” would be interrogated outside the reach of U.S. law.

Barack Obama ordered the closing of such “black sites” shortly after he took office in 2009. At the same time Obama ordered CIA interrogators to abide by the standards of the Army Field Manual, which prohibited waterboarding and other inhumane interrogation methods. Congress later wrote that requirement into federal law.

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White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the proposed executive order was “not a White House document.” But The New York Times quoted three administration officials who said it had circulated among staff members of the National Security Council.

Meanwhile, Trump told an interviewer for ABC News this week that he has spoken to intelligence experts who were “big believers” in waterboarding. Not only that: He said he had asked people at the highest levels of intelligence: “‘Does torture work?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, absolutely.’”

To be fair, Trump said that he would defer — for now anyway — to Secretary of Defense James Mattis “who said he’s not a believer in torture.” The president added that “I want to do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally.”

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The problem is that those legal boundaries could change: The draft executive order is a catalog of possible changes, all of them bad, which is why the White House needs to strongly and clearly disavow the document.

Torture is not a subject on which the administration can afford to send mixed signals.

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