If Trump revives the use of torture and black sites, he will reopen a debate over what the U.S. stands for

President Trump speaks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., on Jan. 21.
(Olivier Douliery / Pool Photo)

If President Trump directs military and intelligence officials to begin torturing terrorism suspects and to renew the use of secret overseas sites to hold them, as he is said to be considering, he is all but certain to reignite a drawn-out debate that lawmakers, foreign leaders and human rights advocates had considered put to rest.

Born out of the Bush administration’s frenzied search in the months after 9/11 to hunt down its perpetrators, the tactics — which included repeated use of waterboarding and a painful technique called rectal feeding that served no medical purpose — eventually fell out of favor and were ultimately condemned in an exhaustive Senate report as inhumane and ineffective. 

Trump campaigned on bringing back waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, conducted by the CIA, saying that concern about being “politically correct” was harming the country’s ability to defend itself. The line drew cheers from his supporters but, less noticeably, condemnation from most who were involved with or had closely studied the program. 

Trump has wavered on his support for harsh interrogations, most notably when James N. Mattis, sworn in last week as his secretary of Defense, told him that “beer and cigarettes” during interrogations produce more useful information. 


But draft memos being circulated by Trump’s newly formed National Security Council call for national security officials to review what interrogation methods are allowed under the Army Field Manual, the standard that Congress used to outlaw torture in 2015. 

“We’re not playing on an even field,” Trump said in an interview this week with ABC News, citing Islamic State’s beheading of captives on video and its use of other medieval tactics. He said unnamed high-ranking intelligence officials had told him torture works, contradicting the Senate report’s conclusions. 

The draft order would revoke former President Obama’s policy to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and lift Obama-era restrictions on such interrogation methods as beatings, waterboarding, mock executions, forcing detainees to be naked and inducing hypothermia, as well as depriving detainees of food, water or medical care, all used by the CIA. 

The order also calls for revamping military commissions for trying terrorism suspects to deliver verdicts more quickly. Some of the suspects in the 9/11 attacks, including self-proclaimed mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, have been held for more than a decade as military court proceedings drag on. 


The draft order instructs the attorney general to review a 2012 policy that restricts the military from holding Americans in custody unless they are closely linked to Al Qaeda and have planned or carried out attacks, which could open the door to an expanded role for military detention of terrorism suspects arrested in the U.S. or Americans arrested abroad.

The CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command are expected to play a major role in increasing attacks on Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a priority for Trump. During his inaugural address, Trump promised to “eradicate from the face of the Earth” Islamic terrorist groups.

In one telling edit in the draft order, the Bush-era phrase “global war on terror” was crossed out and replaced with “fight against radical Islamism,” a phrase that Obama shied away from. Obama administration officials backed off on use of the term “radical Islam,” as did the Bush administration before it, over concerns that it strained relations with key allies in the Arab world and implied that violence was widespread among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

Career intelligence agents, scarred by what many consider a dark stain on the CIA’s history, are reluctant to return to overseeing harsh interrogations, said one intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Now the CIA relies on other governments and foreign intelligence services to hold terrorism suspects and U.S. officials relay questions they want answered, the official said.


And both Republican and Democratic lawmakers believe torture goes against long-standing American values of treating people humanely and standing as an example to other nations. 

“Torture’s not legal and we agree with it not being legal,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday at a retreat for congressional Republicans in Philadelphia.

“The policy, the deep-seated policy in American culture, is not to torture — that is not going to happen,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “We passed a law that prohibited torture.”

Risch said he expected that Trump would listen to his Cabinet and Congress. “That advice is coming back pretty much unanimously — this is not the American way,” he said.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who led the Senate panel’s review, said Trump should read the full classified report before deciding to green-light similar methods.

“Capturing terrorist suspects and torturing them in secret facilities failed. Period,” she said in a statement.

Trump also risks straining relations with some of the nation’s closest allies, such as Britain and France, with which the U.S. has intelligence-sharing agreements but which have vowed not to act on intelligence netted from suspects under duress.

Trump may meet resistance closer to home: Two senior officials in his Cabinet who would be giving orders for handling terrorism suspects, Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, don’t support returning to torture or waterboarding.


Pompeo repeatedly told senators at his confirmation hearing that he would not restart the CIA’s use of secret prisons and would refuse any orders from the White House to torture suspects.

Trump said he would defer to Pompeo and Mattis.

If they don’t wanna do [it], that’s fine,” he said. “If they do wanna do [it], then I will work for that end.”

Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli in Washington and Lisa Mascaro in Philadelphia contributed to this report.


Twitter: @ByBrianBennett


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