President Donald Trump gave a startling interview this week in which he expressly stated his belief that “torture . . . works” and stated that he would order torture if his team asks for it to be used on detainees. It is a position opposed not only by the military and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress but, more importantly, United States and international law. In fairness to Trump, he added that his decision would be controlled by the law but also that he believed in the efficacy of torture: “I want to do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally but do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.” Under international law, it does not matter if torture is successful or useful. It remains a war crime. Indeed, it was the United States that played a key role in defining torture as a violation of international law. In other words, there is no legal basis for the use of torture or the commission of any war crime under domestic or international authority.
President Trump insisted that we have to “fight fire with fire.” Despite the widespread view that torture is not effective in producing reliable information (and the conclusions of intelligence reports that it did not produce significant intelligence), Trump said that he had “spoken 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’.”
Fortunately, Defense Secretary James Mattis has clearly ruled out a return to a torture programs and various members of Congress, including Republicans, have warned Trump that they will not allow a return to the program launched by George W. Bush.
To Trump’s credit, he at least called waterboarding what it is: torture. Bush officials danced around the term torture despite long-standing rulings that it is a clear form of torture. Trump did not shy away from the turn but rather openly embraced it.
What is worrisome is that he did not even acknowledge that he would be ordering a war crime and subject the country and himself to potential international charges. Instead he defined our actions by the depravity of our enemies:
“When they’re shooting, when they’re chopping off the heads of our people and other people, when they’re chopping off the heads of people because they happen to be a Christian in the Middle East, when Isis is doing things that nobody has ever heard of since Medieval times, would I feel strongly about waterboarding?”
In the end however Trump affirmed that (while he believes torture works) he would yield to the law. That law is clear. Congress prohibited the use of torture, including waterboarding, and such tactics are not allowed under the military code.
If we ever resumed our “enhanced interrogation” program, Trump’s words could be used by an international tribunal. He is shown openly endorsing the use of “torture” — dispensing with the rhetorical evasions of the past Administration. Torture is expressly defined as a war crime under governing treaties and international law. By saying that he believes in effectiveness of torture and the willingness to order torture, Trump has created a record that could be used by other countries to establish knowledge and intent.
Finally, by expressly stating that torture is effective and permitted, Trump’s words could be used to legitimate the torture of American military personnel or civilians.
What do you think?