Trump review exposes GOP divide on torture

Trump review exposes GOP divide on torture
© Getty

A decision by President Trump to review the use of torture on captured terror suspects is exposing a stark rift within the Republican Party.

Trump on Wednesday told ABC News that he “absolutely” thinks that waterboarding works and would consider reinstating it as an interrogation technique if senior administration officials think it’s necessary.

“I will rely on [CIA Director Mike Pompeo] and [Defense Secretary James Mattis] and my group. And if they don’t want to do, that’s fine. If they do wanna do, then I will work toward that end. I want to do everything within the bounds of what you're allowed to do legally,” Trump said.

But a review of the use of waterboarding — now banned under the law— is necessary “to fight fire with fire,” Trump said.

The president is expected to announce a new executive order on Thursday that would further set out his plans to combat terrorism.

While it is unclear exactly what Trump will propose, a three-page draft order published Wednesday by The New York Times would reverse a series of Obama administration rules limiting the use of torture.

The order could also allow for the reopening of "black site" prisons where the CIA secretly detained terror suspects during the George W. Bush administration and subjected prisoners to interrogation techniques like stress positions and sleep deprivation.

Press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday insisted the memo was not a White House document, but he did not say whether it may have originated with either Trump’s transition team or with another government agency.

The document nevertheless stirred controversy, with some Republicans saying the debate over the use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques widely considered torture should be over.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate Dems tell Trump: Don't meet with Putin one-on-one McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 Overnight Defense: Fears rise over Trump-Putin summit | McCain presses Trump to hold Putin 'accountable' for hacking | Pentagon does damage control after NATO meet MORE (R-Ariz.), who was captured while fighting in Vietnam and tortured during a five-year imprisonment, immediately blasted the leaked document.

“The President can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSunday shows preview: Trump readies for meeting with Putin McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 GOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh MORE (R-Ky.) echoed McCain.

"I'm alarmed by anybody that wants to go back to torture. The people in the Senate who have been tortured, mainly John McCain, don't think torture is a good idea. Also, it's currently against the law, and I hope it will remain against the law."

But other GOP members were less critical — and in some corners, the proposal received outright praise.

"I would support very much the idea that we're going to review and that's what the executive order does,” freshman Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told reporters at the Republican retreat in Philadelphia.

“I think that it's been clear, certainly since we stopped the enhanced interrogation program, we're not even in a position any more, frankly, where we're very often capturing people. We have nothing to do with people when we do capture them," Cheney said, echoing a common complaint amongst conservative policy experts who say that the Obama administration’s targeted killings of terrorists cut the U.S. off from valuable streams of intelligence.

The controversy revives a decade-old fight. Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, is a fierce defender of the harsh interrogation technique. McCain famously clashed with him over the issue during the Bush administration.

Other, more senior Republicans declined to condemn the proposal outright, arguing only that Congress has already weighed in and banned the use of interrogation techniques not explicitly condoned in the Army Field Manual. 

“We view that to be a matter of settled law,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE The real reason Scott Pruitt is gone: Putting a key voting bloc at risk Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers eye ban on Chinese surveillance cameras | DOJ walks back link between fraud case, OPM breach | GOP senators question Google on Gmail data | FCC under pressure to delay Sinclair merger review MORE (R-S.D.) told reporters. “With regard to how most members of Congress perceive or view that, we've spoken on that.”

But he declined to close the door on the proposal entirely.

"Now if the administration has a proposal that they want Congress to take a look at, certainly we're willing to take a look at what it might be that they're suggesting,” he said.

Mattis has been explicit that he does not condone torture, arguing that softer methods often engender better results. In an interview in November, Trump said that Mattis told him, “give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.” 

Pompeo’s position on the issue is less clear.

From his former post on the House Intelligence Committee, Pompeo condemned the Obama administration rules limiting government interrogators to techniques in the field manual, regulations that are up for review this year. 

The former cavalry officer during his confirmation hearing promised lawmakers that he would “absolutely not” comply with an order from the then-president-elect to resume the use of interrogation techniques considered by the international community to be torture.

“Moreover, I can’t imagine that I would be asked that by the president-elect,” he said.

He agreed that it would require a change in law for the CIA to lawfully employ interrogation techniques beyond those contained in the Army Field Manual.

But in a series of written answers to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pompeo said that he would consult with CIA experts to determine whether the methods in the field manual are sufficient and work with experts to offer recommendations to make changes if they aren’t.

Both Mattis and Pompeo reportedly told at least one senior lawmaker that they had nothing to do with the leaked document, according to a source familiar with the conversation.

And it remains unclear whether there would be any enthusiasm within the CIA or other branches of government for a return to the use of more brutal interrogation tactics, given their experience during the Bush administration.

“I’ve picked up precisely zero appetite for doing that again amongst intelligence officers,” said Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff at the CIA and the Defense Department under Leon Panetta, speaking at a Center for American Progress event Wednesday morning.

Most lawmakers and policy experts are in agreement that Trump can do little to expand the practices without congressional approval.

A 2016 defense policy bill codified two Obama administration executive orders limiting interrogators to Army Field Manual-approved techniques and requiring Red Cross access to any detention facilities.

It’s unclear what kind of support Trump would be able to drum up on Capitol Hill for more permissive legislation.

The vote amendment earned 21 Republican nays — including from current Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKavanaugh gets questionnaires for confirmation hearing Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick Franken offers Dems a line of questioning for Kavanaugh's 'weirdly specific bit of bulls---' MORE (R-Ky.), Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Health Care: Watchdog finds Tom Price improperly used funds on flights | Ex-Novartis CEO sent drug pricing proposal to Cohen | HHS staffers depart after controversial social media posts HHS staffers depart after controversial social media posts: report Senate takes symbolic shot at Trump tariffs MORE (R-S.C.) and two of Trump’s Cabinet picks: Director of National Intelligence nominee Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsTop Democrats request meeting with intel chief over sharing of classified info Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war NSA deletes scores of call records over ‘technical irregularities’ MORE (R-Ind.) and Attorney General nominee Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsConservatives moving to impeach Rosenstein soon: report Senators urge DOJ to probe whether Russians posed as Islamic extremist hackers to harass US military families The Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies for Putin summit: 'He’s not my enemy’ MORE (R-Ala.).