Trump's impending executive order heralds 'dangerous' return to torture, official warns

Adviser to team that interrogates terror suspects says politicians like Trump ‘have no idea how little they know’ about the perils of reinstating torture

A senior adviser to the FBI-led team that interrogates terrorist suspects has blasted an impending executive order from Donald Trump as a dangerous and ignorant potential return to torture.

Steve Kleinman, a retired air force colonel and chairman of the research advisory committee to the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), warned that weakening US prohibitions against torture carried significant consequences for national security.

“If the US [were] to make it once again the policy of the country to coerce, and to detain at length in an extrajudicial fashion, the costs would be beyond substantial – they’d be potentially existential. We’ve seen how [torture] promotes violent extremism, how it degrades alliances. We’ve seen how it only serves to provide information that policymakers want to support [desired policies], not what they need,” Kleinman said.

“A lot of these people who weigh in heavily on interrogation have no idea how little they know, [and do so] because of what they see on television,” said Kleinman, who emphasized that he was not speaking for the HIG.

Opposition was quickly coalescing on Wednesday to an executive order the US president was expected to issue that would create a pathway to restoring the detention of terrorism suspects at facilities known as “black sites”, formally ending Barack Obama’s thwarted order to close the Guantánamo Bay wartime prison. This would also remove limitations on coercive interrogation techniques set by a longstanding army field manual intended to ensure humane military interrogations, which is mostly compliant with the Geneva Conventions.

Trump, on the campaign trail, pledged to bring back techniques “a hell of a lot worse” than the simulated drowning known as waterboarding used by the CIA during George W Bush’s administration.

In an interview with ABC News, the president repeated his belief that torture works, “absolutely”, and that the US should “fight fire with fire”.

“I’ve spoken in recent days with people at the highest level of intelligence, and I’ve asked them: ‘Does torture work?’ And the answer was ‘Yes, absolutely.’

However, Trump said he would defer to the incoming CIA director, Mike Pompeo, and the defense secretary, James Mattis, on the issue.

Senator John McCain, a torture survivor and co-author of a 2015 law barring the security agencies from using interrogation techniques that surpass the prohibitions in the army field manual, pledged defiance over a return to torture.

“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,” said McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate armed services committee.

McCain referenced explicit guarantees from Pompeo and Mattis during their Senate confirmation proceedings to follow the interrogations law and the army field manual. “I am confident these leaders will be true to their word,” McCain said.

Mike Pompeo rules out use of torture under Trump presidency

A draft version of Trump’s executive order – published by the Washington Post and the New York Times but whose authenticity was contested by the White House press secretary, Sean Spicercontains a prohibition on “torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment”. But security veterans and civil libertarians were concerned that the order, expected to authorize a “review” of the field manual, would lead to revisions that would substantially gut the prohibitions on torture as an end-run around the law.

“US law is clear that the army field manual cannot be modified for at least two years, and even then, to ensure it complies with domestic US legal obligations. Reviewing whether ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ should be part of that manual would be tantamount to reviewing whether torture should be part of it, and such a review should not be undertaken,” said Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch.

Mark Fallon, who was the deputy chief of Guantánamo’s Bush-era investigative taskforce for military tribunals, said: “It does appear like a subterfuge to enact more brutal methods because that was what candidate Trump campaigned on during the election.”

Fallon warned that the field manual’s appendix M, which allows extended “separation” of a detainee from other captives, represented a “slippery slope that could bring back torture”.

Pompeo, confirmed as CIA director on Monday, said in Senate testimony that he would “absolutely not” comply with an order from the White House to use interrogation techniques outside the army field manual.

But in subsequent questioning by the Senate intelligence committee, Pompeo said he would “consult with experts at the agency and at other organizations in the US government on whether the army field manual uniform application is an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country or whether any rewrite of the army field manual is needed”.

Kleinman said he was heartened by Pompeo’s seeming opposition to torture in his confirmation testimony, but noted that Trump’s nominee had now “ walked that back”.

Additional suspicion of a “re-examination” of the field manual springs from the existence of a voluminous sheaf of literature on interrogations, arisen over the past decade, that with striking uniformity rejects torture as ineffective, as well as brutal. Much of it was authored by experienced interrogators and behavioral scientists.

It began with a multi-volume study in 2006, chartered by the Intelligence Science Board, called “Educing Information”. Kleinman, whose career provided him with more than 30 years’ experience in human intelligence, was its lead author. Under Obama’s administration, the study contributed to the creation of the HIG, a secretive group from the FBI, CIA and military with a mandate to interrogate high-level terror suspects without torture.

Most recently, in August 2016, the HIG published an interrogation “best practices” report that found an “effective interrogation requires an individualized, flexible, rapport-based and information-gathering approach”, rather than brutality.

Kleinman said: “There is, at best, anecdotal evidence to support torture.

“There is, on the other hand, a robust body of scientific literature and field testing that demonstrates the efficacy of a relationship-based, rapport-based, cognitive-based approach to interrogation, as well as a robust literature that would suggest torture immediately undermines a source’s ability to be a reliable reporter of information: memory is undermined, judgment is undermined, decision-making is undermined, time-references are undermined. And this is only from a purely operational perspective; we can’t take the morality out of strategy.”

Fallon, the former Guantánamo investigative official, said the call for surpassing the torture prohibitions was not coming from interrogators.

“It’s against what practitioners are calling for. What President Trump needs to recognize is that interrogations professionals are not looking for additional techniques, they’re looking for the science to aid existing techniques,” he said.

Hours after the supposed draft order leaked, representatives of the CIA and the Pentagon distanced themselves from the unfolding political fracas.

“At this time, the US army has not made any requests to review Army Field Manual 2-22.3,” a spokesman told the Guardian, using the formal designation for the interrogations field manual. Similarly, CIA sources leaked to Yahoo News that Pompeo was blindsided by the draft of the order.


Spencer Ackerman in New York

The GuardianTramp

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