As a general proposition, Mitt Romney's campaign has striven to distance itself from the George W. Bush administration. But the candidate and his advisors seem intent on restoring one of that administration's most discredited policies: the use of torture to extract information from suspected terrorists. Such a return to what President Obama rightly has called a "dark and painful chapter in our history" would endanger, not enhance, American security.
The New York Times recently reported on a memo by a group of Romney legal advisors urging him, if elected, to rescind an executive order issued by Obama that bans "enhanced interrogation techniques" not permitted by the Army Field Manual. And the candidate himself is on record as supporting such a shameful retrenchment. In December, he told reporters that "we'll use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now." He also said he didn't consider waterboarding torture.
The Bush administration's use of waterboarding and other cruel and inhuman methods, blessed by compliant lawyers in the Justice Department, was a stain on this country's reputation and an extraordinarily effective recruiting tool for terrorists. Congress rectified the problem to some extent in 2005 when it enacted the Detainee Treatment Act, prohibiting "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" of terrorist suspects. But it took Obama's executive order to ensure that, like their military counterparts, CIA interrogators couldn't employ waterboarding, extended solitary confinement, the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners and the placing of hoods over inmates' heads.
Defenders of enhanced interrogation techniques — including Romney's legal advisors— insist that they produced valuable intelligence. It's not clear, however, that any useful information pried loose by such methods couldn't have been obtained by more humane and psychologically sensitive practices. Ultimately, however, the utility of waterboarding and other cruel and degrading tactics is beside the point. Torture is morally repugnant and is prohibited by international agreements to which the United States has committed itself. Whether Romney doesn't understand that or is pandering to voters who believe anything goes in the war on terror, his enthusiasm for a return to Bush-era torture is offensive.