January 30, 2017

Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go?

Writing about web page https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/26/donald-trumps-brazen-first-interview-as-president-annotated/?utm_term=.aea7ee7c3ace

In his 25 January ABC interview, US President Trump was asked about the use of torture in the interrogation of terrorist suspects. He said:

I have a general who I have great respect for, General Mattis [new secretary of defense], who said — I was a little surprised — who said he's not a believer in torture. As you know, Mr. Pompeo [a defender of waterboarding] was just approved, affirmed by the Senate. He's a fantastic guy, he's gonna be the head of the CIA ...

But I will tell you I have spoken to others in intelligence. And they are big believers in, as an example, waterboarding. As far as I'm concerned we have to fight fire with fire. Now, with that being said I'm going with General Mattis. I'm going with my secretary because I think Pompeo's gonna be phenomenal. I'm gonna go with what they say. But I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence. And I asked them the question, “Does it work? Does torture work?” And the answer was, “Yes, absolutely” ...

I wanna do everything within the bounds of what you're allowed to do legally. But do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works. Have I spoken to people at the top levels and people that have seen it work? I haven't seen it work. But I think it works. Have I spoken to people that feel strongly about it? Absolutely.

According to a draft order on Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants, obtained by The New York Times and published on the same day as the ABC interview, but as yet unconfirmed by the administration, the President intends to allow the CIA to reopen extra-territorial sites for the detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects outside the ordinary legal protections of US domestic law. The draft order specifically orders the secretary of defence, James Mattis, to carry out a review of the interrogation practices authorized by the Army Field Manual since 2006 and to modify them towards the "safe, lawful, and effective" interrogation of "enemy combatants."

Taken together, these disclosures have heightened reasonable fears that the Trump administration is on a course to restore such practices as waterboarding, if not worse.

Torture is wrong. A problem is that many Americans believe that it works. A big influence has been spy movies and TV shows based on a "ticking time bomb" fantasy in which intelligence extracted by torture saves lives. Many viewers have concluded that such scenarios are reality-based, although they are not. In reality torture is unproductive, if not counterproductive, at least on average (I don’t exclude that exceptionally it might give rise to useful information). Worse, just as depictions of torture corrupt the viewer, the practice of torture corrupts those that use it: once you start, it’s hard to stop. For all these reasons, President Trump’s reported willingness to faciliate a return to torture is reprehensible.

Still, if the President intends to change American practices, as opposed to striking an attitude for his voter base, he will encounter significant obstacles. It is notable that in his ABC interview Trump himself acknowledged the first two obstacles. One is the law, including the Detainee Treatment Act 2005, and related court rulings. Another is Mattis, his secretary of defence. Beyond that lie other resisters. His CIA director-designate is not opposed, but it seems the CIA as an organization does not want to go back there. Leading congressmen are opposed, including some Republicans. Finally, America’s allies will not cooperate.

What does Trump really want to achieve? To strike an attitude or to radically change US practices? If the latter, what price is the President willing to pay to achieve it? Is he willing to take on Congress and the courts? To sacrifice Mattis? We don't know. How strong are the checks and balances of the US political system? Again, we don't know.

It will be an interesting time.


- 2 comments by 1 or more people

  1. Paul Thompson

    Mr. Harrison,

    Your view of torture is confused. Torture is certainly morally abhorrent and therefore completely intolerable. The moral prohibition on torture has nothing whatsoever to do with its effectiveness. Indeed, the the widespread use of torture and other criminal methods by the Gestapo and NKVD was very effective in destroying secret opposition to the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Torture or even the threat of torture, when employed on a large scale, often leads to the victims giving up a large volume of information, some of which is useful for intelligence operations. Given the relative technological backwardness of the Nazis and the Soviets, they understood well that mass torture was one the most effective methods they had available to find those of their opponents who had gone into hiding. It is a matter of common knowledge that more technologically advanced tyrannies, like modern Russia, still use torture on a mass scale, and sometimes gain information that they deem important by this means.

    In the above context, it is particularly cynical of you to ask the rhetorical question “how strong are the checks and balances of the US political system?” The Eighth Amendment explicitly prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments”. The US political system is duty-bound to enforce the constitution, so there the matter rests. For all the hysteria about waterboarding, the US has not and will not ever have a policy of inflicting permanent physical harm on prisoners. Perhaps you will find time to write about the mass torture and mass murder at Saydnaya prison, a rather more important topic.

    09 Feb 2017, 12:53

  2. Mark Harrison

    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. You will find my (overlong) reply here:

    http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/entry/torture_how_far_1/

    10 Feb 2017, 09:02


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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