Trump claims torture works but experts warn of its 'potentially existential' costs

Trump gives first presidential TV interview as draft executive order points to return to practices such as waterboarding

Donald Trump has used his first TV interview as president to say he believes torture “absolutely” works and that the US should “fight fire with fire.”

Speaking to ABC News, Trump said he would defer to the defence secretary, James Mattis, and CIA director, Mike Pompeo, to determine what can and cannot be done legally to combat the spread of terrorism.

But asked about the efficacy of tactics such as waterboarding, Trump said: “absolutely I feel it works.”

President Trump on waterboarding: “I feel it works,” but will rely on team’s guidance and do everything “legally."

— ABC News (@ABC) January 26, 2017

“When Isis is doing things that nobody has ever heard of since medieval times. Would I feel strongly about waterboarding. As far as I’m concerned we have to fight fire with fire.”

Trump said he asked intelligence chiefs earlier this week whether torture works. “The answer was yes, absolutely,” he said.

He added that terrorist groups “chop off the citizens’ or anybody’s heads in the Middle East, because they’re Christian or Muslim or anything else ... we have that and we’re not allowed to do anything. We’re not playing on an even field.”

The interviews come after reports that Trump is preparing to sign an executive order that would reinstate the detention of terrorism suspects at facilities known as “black sites”.

This would 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. Mattis and Pompeo were “blindsided” by reports of the draft order, Politico said citing sources.

However, Trump faces resistance to the prospect of the reintroduction of torture.

On Wednesday, Steve Kleinman, a retired air force colonel and senior adviser to the FBI-led team that interrogates terrorist suspects warned that weakening US prohibitions against torture was dangerous and ignorant.

“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, chairman of the research advisory committee to the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG).

“There is, at best, anecdotal evidence to support torture,” said Kleinman, who emphasized that he was not speaking for the HIG.

“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.”

“If the US was 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,” Kleinman said.

Senator John McCain, a torture survivor and co-author of a 2015 law barring the US security agencies from using interrogation techniques that surpass the prohibitions beyond those set out in the US army field manual, signalled his defiance.

“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.

The former CIA head Leon Panetta, who gave the orders to close the agency’s black sites told the BBC that it would be a “mistake” to reintroduce enhanced interrogation techniques and “damaging” to the reputation of the US. Panetta said torture was violation of the US values and the constitution.

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”.

Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, has been urged to by her own MPs to make Britain’s opposition to torture clear to Trump when she visits him on Friday.

At prime minister’s questions Andrew Tyrie, a senior Tory MP, said: “President Trump has repeatedly said he will bring back torture as an instrument of policy. When she sees him on Friday, will the prime minister make it clear that in no circumstances will she permit Britain to be dragged into facilitating that torture, as we were after 11 September?”


Matthew Weaver and Spencer Ackerman

The GuardianTramp

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