Debate over interrogations reignites

Debate over interrogations reignites

One year after the Senate released a scathing report on the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation techniques, Republican presidential candidates are debating whether it’s time to resurrect the methods in the war against Islamic militants.

Talk of returning to the days of waterboarding and “stress positions” has erupted on the campaign trail, with some candidates calling for a return to the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that critics condemn as torture.

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“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would — in a heartbeat,” Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Justice Dept spokesman: Trump looks 'super guilty' How Florida explains our polarized politics Dem senator: Pardoning targets of Russia probe would be 'crossing a fundamental line' MORE said last month at a rally in Columbus, Ohio.

Other top Republican candidates been less outspoken, but nonetheless willing to entertain the idea of using tougher interrogation methods.

“We’ve gotten into this mindset of fighting politically correct wars. There is no such thing as a politically correct war,” former neurosurgeon Ben Carson said during a Fox news debate in August.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioBush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  Cruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power MORE (R-Fla.) has said he does not want to deny “future commanders in chief and intelligence officials important tools for protecting the American people and the U.S. homeland,” while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has declared that “there’s a difference between enhanced interrogation techniques and torture.” 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) — who has attempted to use his credentials as a former U.S. attorney to bolster his lagging campaign amid new focus on terror  — said last month that the “awful” Senate report “did nothing more than demoralize American intelligence officers all around the world,” and may have allowed the plot to kill 130 people in Paris to escape detection.

The tough rhetoric shows the debate over interrogations methods is far from over amid growing fears about the terrorist threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Senate Democrats had hoped for a very different outcome last year, when they portrayed their report on the George W. Bush-era interrogations as turning the page from a dark era in American history.

“The legacy is ‘never again,’ ” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinFeinstein: Trump Jr. will be subpoenaed if he refuses to testify The next battle in the fight against human trafficking Trump's FBI nominee passes committee, heads to full Senate MORE (D-Calif.), the former chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who went to battle with the CIA to have an executive summary of the report made public.

“Thanks to Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.], the defense authorization bill has a prohibition on torture that is very specific and binds it to the Army Field Manual. So that’s a major accomplishment, in my view,” she added.

Last year’s report, which many GOP lawmakers ardently opposed, claimed that the CIA engaged in “brutal” interrogations under former President Bush that were “far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers” and “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.”

“We cannot again allow history to be forgotten and grievous past mistakes to be repeated,” Feinstein said in a foreword to the report’s 500-page executive summary.

Despite legal efforts to force it into the light, the full 6,300-page report remains classified. Most likely, it will never be made public.

Similarly, an effort to disclose a separate review of the interrogations program by former CIA Director Leon Panetta, which is believed to largely support the Senate panel’s conclusions, appears likely to remain classified.

Senate investigators obtained a copy of that review during their probe, and it became the center of a sprawling controversy in which the CIA accessed the Senate’s walled-off side of a shared computer system. Lawmakers decried the search as an unconstitutional intrusion on Congress, and some called for CIA Director John Brennan to resign.

Republicans on the Intelligence Committee, who took power at the beginning of this year, uniformly panned the Democrats’ work. The report was one-sided, they said, and threatened to undermine the work of CIA agents who believed they were operating within the confines of the law to protect national security.

Former agency officials also rallied against the report.

The day before it was released, a group of former officials unveiled a website, CIASavedLives.com, that calls the analysis “the single worst example of congressional oversight in our many years of government service.”

Perhaps because of the vigorous backlash from the intelligence community, the Justice Department has declined to reopen a criminal investigation into CIA officials who participated in the program.

President Obama, who has said that the U.S. “tortured some folks” under the CIA program, administratively barred the CIA from using similar interrogation methods as one of his first acts in the White House.

But any future president could undo those changes, which is a source of worry for human rights advocates.

This summer, months after the Senate report was released, the upper chamber voted 78-21 to codify the restrictions on interrogations in legislation. The new limits restrict the government to interrogation and detention methods outlined in the Army Field Manual, and include other measures to prevent new extreme practices.

Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzSenators, you passed ObamaCare repeal-only bill in 2015 — do it again McCain rivals praise senator after brain cancer diagnosis Senate heads to new healthcare vote with no clear plan MORE (R-Texas) and Rand PaulRand PaulSenate heads to new healthcare vote with no clear plan Overnight Healthcare: CBO predicts 22M would lose coverage under Senate ObamaCare replacement Fox News personality: GOP healthcare plan says ‘ideology is less important than victory' MORE (R-Ky.), who are running for president, voted for the measure. Rubio was not in Washington for the vote, but said that he would have opposed it.

Obama signed the measure into law as part of the annual defense bill in November.

Even if Trump, Rubio or another Republican president wanted to reinstate the enhanced interrogations program, “they would never have the votes anyway,” McCain told The Hill on Tuesday.

“They couldn’t resurrect it.”

Human rights advocates bemoan the fact that the U.S. has not done more to punish people who participated in the program. Last week, Human Rights Watch released a 153-page report calling for criminal charges against former George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and multiple other officials.

Yet one year is too short a timeline to evaluate the full effect of the Senate’s report, according to Naureen Shah, the director of Amnesty International USA’s security and human rights program.

“It’s totally a long game,” she said. “How do you get countries to eradicate torture? You measure it in 50 years — you don’t measure it just in a year or two.”

The report “does help us get us to the U.S. restoring its credibility on the issue globally,” she added, “because it does show other governments that the US is willing to recognize what happened, instead of covering it up.”