The new president has set the nation on a potentially dangerous new course by reopening the possibility of torturing terrorist suspects
One of the Obama administration's signal achievements while in office was to end the use of torture by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies to extract information from terrorist suspects captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. But now President Donald Trump, who during the recent campaign made no secret of his belief that "torture works," is considering reinstating the practice under a draft executive order circulated in the White House this week. We urge Mr. Trump to resist a proposal that in the past has proven to be both counterproductive to the nation's interests and a corrupting influence on its efforts to combat Islamic extremism.
Make no mistake: Putting America back in the torture business would be a terrible idea whose effect ultimately would do great harm to the nation's ability to successfully prosecute the war on terror. It would undermine the United States' moral standing in the world, threaten its alliances with friendly governments in the Middle East and Europe, and serve as a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaida, ISIS and other terrorist organizations to attract new fighters. Even Mr. Trump's Republican colleagues in Congress are urging him to resist going down this dangerous path.
The document circulated by the White House, first reported by The Washington Post, calls for a high-level review of the U.S. policy banning torture and the decision to close the network of secret CIA prisons around the world where it was practiced. In 2014, an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that the use of torture not only produced little in the way of information that would enable agents to prevent future attacks against the U.S. and its allies but that the CIA had greatly exaggerated the importance of the information it did obtain from terrorist suspects in order to justify the program's existence. Moreover, the brutal treatment of prisoners lowered the quality of the intelligence obtained through torture simply because suspects eventually would say anything simply to stop the pain.
The use of torture also greatly complicated the subsequent prosecution of detainees in U.S. courts because any incriminating statements they gave investigators had had been obtained under duress and thus were inadmissible as evidence. As a result, the U.S. military ended up with several hundred prisoners whom authorities considered too dangerous to release but who couldn't be convicted of the crimes they were accused of under American law. Instead, authorities were forced to warehouse them indefinitely at the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a potent global symbol of American hypocrisy.
Those unhappy experiences ought to have convinced Mr. Trump and his advisers that torturing suspects should play no part in future U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and that there's nothing to be gained by reinstating policies that already have been discredited by experience.
Fortunately, some respected Republicans in Congress, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was himself brutality tortured by his captors after his plane was shot down over Hanoi during the Vietnam War, have sharply rebuked Mr. Trump for even considering such an order. Speaking to reporters in Philadelphia, he said "torture takes away the most important aspect of the United States of America — we are a moral nation, we are not like other countries, we don't torture people. It's not only the issue of torture, it's also the issue of what kind of nation we are."
And on Thursday, the GOP's top two congressional leaders, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both criticized Mr. Trump for entertaining the notion the U.S. might bring torture back. "Torture is illegal," Mr. Ryan said, "and we agree with it not being legal." Meanwhile Mr. McConnell noted that "the director of the CIA has made it clear that he's going to follow the law," and that "virtually all of [our] members are comfortable" with that. Even retired Gen. James Mattis, Mr. Trump's pick to be secretary of defense, has advised the president that torture is rarely effective. Last November he reportedly told Mr. Trump, "give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I'll do better." But whether the mercurial commander-in-chief will heed those warnings remains to be seen.