Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says he wants to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse,” while the winner of last month’s Iowa GOP caucus, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, says he wouldn’t rule out waterboarding if it “were necessary to prevent a city from, say, facing an imminent terrorist attack.” In fact, not a single Republican presidential candidate has come out and flatly said he opposes waterboarding. (Before dropping out of the race, Carly Fiorina also defended it.)
But a nonpartisan group of former national security, law enforcement, and interrogation professionals who served in an array of government agencies wants them to think twice. In a letter released Wednesday, the group reminds Trump, Cruz, and company that “as a candidate to be the next President and Commander in Chief, you have a responsibility to ensure that the United States adheres to effective, lawful, and humane standards for interrogation. We urge you to publicly and unequivocally reject the use of torture and cruel treatment.”
A representative of the organization that released the letter, Human Rights First, said she can’t respond to questions about whether any of the candidates had anything to say in response to the letter, which was first sent in September, because those communications are confidential. But if Cruz’s discussion of waterboarding during a February 6 presidential debate is any indication, he’d likely respond by making a case that waterboarding doesn’t constitute torture.
“Under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems,” Cruz said. “So under the definition [waterboarding] is not. It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture.”
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Semantics aside, the group of former intelligence professionals points out that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques simply don’t produce good intelligence.
“Torture is not only illegal and immoral; it is counterproductive,” they write. “It tends to produce unreliable information because it degrades a detainee’s ability to recall and transmit information, undermines trust in the interrogator, and often prompts a detainee to relay false information that he believes the interrogator wants to hear. It also increases the risk that our troops will be tortured, hinders cooperation with allies, alienates populations whose support the United States needs in the struggle against terrorism, and provides a propaganda tool for extremists who wish to do us harm.”
Not only is torture ineffective at gathering intelligence, but American use of waterboarding inspired many people to fight against the U.S. “It is a hard truth, but we note that a large proportion of the fighters who opposed the U.S. in Iraq did so expressly as a result of the U.S. use of ‘enhanced interrogation,’ which the entire world recognizes as, quite simply, torture,” the letter says.
That stance echoes findings from a 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report that found “the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques [as authorized by the Bush administration following 9/11] was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.”
In response to that report, Congress included an amendment in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama last November that prohibits the use of torture (including waterboarding) by any agent of the U.S. government, and standardizes noncoercive interrogation methods.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — another Republican presidential candidate — opposed the anti-torture amendment, saying he didn’t want to deny future presidents “important tools for protecting the American people.” Cruz voted for it, but a statement he issued after the vote left open the distinction between torture and waterboarding he now relies upon to say he opposes the former but sometimes supports the latter.
“Torture is wrong, unambiguously,” Cruz said last year. “Civilized nations do not engage in torture and Congress has rightly acted to make absolutely clear that the United States will not engage in torture.”