One day after touting his ideological flexibility on the debate stage, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump demonstrated that flexibility on Friday by reversing his position on torture.
Though for many weeks Trump has been telling crowds he would bring back the practice of waterboarding and other forms of torture that are “a hell of a lot worse,” he sent a statement to the Wall Street Journal on Friday promising to stay within the bounds of international law.
“[I would] use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies,” he said. “I do, however, understand that the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters. I will not order a military officer to disobey the law. It is clear that as president I will be bound by laws just like all Americans and I will meet those responsibilities.”
Less than 24 hours previously, Trump was on the debate stage in Detroit doubling down on his vows to kill civilian families members of terrorists, use waterboarding to get information out of prisoners, and bring back other forms of torture banned by international law. When debate moderators told him that former military and intelligence leaders have suggested that the U.S. military can and should refuse to carry out such orders if Trump becomes commander in chief, Trump responded: “They’re not going to refuse me…I’m a leader, I’ve always been a leader, I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”
Killing innocent family members of terrorists would violate the Geneva Conventions, which also bans torture, including waterboarding.
Yet many Republican have greeted his promises to commit these acts with enthusiastic support. In New Hampshire, voters told ThinkProgress they see the torture of suspected terrorists as useful both for gathering information and for pure “retribution.”
“You don’t have to be the nice guy, you have to stand up for America,” Manchester resident Peter Ierardi said.
Many Americans agree. A 2015 poll found that 73 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats said torture against prisoners is sometimes “justified.”
Yet not only is torture illegal, legal experts and former interrogators say it’s an ineffective and inaccurate way to gather intelligence, and it severely damages the reputation of the U.S.
As former national security, law enforcement, and interrogation professionals who served in an array of government agencies explained in a recent open letter: “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.”
In late 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report that also found “the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.” The report says many tortured detainees “fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.”