Within hours of the leak (by a whistleblower) of a National Security Council draft Executive Order calling for the reinstatement of the illegal Bush-era CIA torture program, I was invited to participate in a round-table discussion about torture on Irish Public Radio. The other guests were an American living in London who claimed to have been a CIA counter-terrorism officer during the Bush administration (I was a CIA counter-terrorism officer at the same time this guy purported to be, and I had never heard of him) and a woman from New Jersey whose husband had been killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It felt like a set-up from the interview's very first question.
That first question was, "Do torture techniques like waterboarding work?" I was dying to jump in immediately, but I wasn't called, and my microphone was off. The other CIA officer, "Mike," said that yes, waterboarding works, it's a proven method, it saved American lives, it disrupted attacks, blah, blah, blah. Then the widow was asked. She went on a long soliloquy, talking about what it meant to lose a husband in a terrorist attack, and saying that her children had been left fatherless and the family nearly lost their home. She finished by saying, "I don't see how sprinkling a little water on their faces is torture. It's just water. What about my husband? Wasn't it a form of torture to murder him in the World Trade Center?"
With all due respect to this woman and her family, their loss was irrelevant to the debate. The question of whether or not torture works also was irrelevant, and I said so.
Lots of things "work," I said. Raping and sodomizing prisoners "works." We don't do that. (At least we're not supposed to. This and other horrors were carried out by military officers and enlisted personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in the last decade.) Raping prisoners' wives works. We don't do that. Beating and torturing their children in front of them works. We don't do that either. The issue isn't whether something works. The issue is whether what we're doing is moral, ethical, and legal. Torture is not. Torture is an abomination. I was called a "monster" and a "terrorist lover."
I've been speaking out against torture for nearly a decade. I've debated a lot of people. But this encounter surprised and disgusted me. I think it's because people on the political right feel empowered by Trump's election. They feel like they can take outrageous -- and public -- positions on issues like torture (or rendition or secret prisons or drones) and the rest of us just have to accept them. The rest of us are the crazy ones. The rest of us are un-American.
For the record, torture is illegal. It is a violation of the federal Torture Act and of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. It's a violation of the 2015 McCain-Feinstein Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. In 1946, the United States executed Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American prisoners of war. Waterboarding was a war crime that demanded the death penalty. Today, we have to hear Americans describe it as "sprinkling a little water" on the face of a prisoner.
This is going to be a tough fight, especially with Trump in the White House. A recent Reuters poll showed that a clear majority of Americans -- 63 percent -- support the use of torture against terrorism suspects. Only 15 percent of us think that torture is never acceptable. Only 15 percent think that we should even bother to observe and respect the law.
Many of us have consistently underestimated Donald Trump over the past two years. We can't any longer. Trump has surrounded himself with people who support torture. He has said that he wants to re-institute the torture program. He has said that he wants to reopen black sites -- secret prisons -- overseas. We have to take him at his word. And we have to fight him. We must take to the courts, shout to the press, and march in the streets. We are on the right side of history here. We cannot remain silent.
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