Global Policy Forum

Leading GOP Candidates Surge to Embrace Torture


By William Fisher

May 23, 2007

Despite the contention of scores of senior military intelligence officers that "torture doesn't work," the audience at last week's Republican presidential candidate debate broke into applause when leading candidates endorsed increased use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques. The notable exception was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for eight years and experienced torture firsthand. His disavowal was greeted with silence from the predominantly conservative South Carolina audience.

The views of the ten candidates for the GOP presidential nomination came in response to a scenario presented by Fox News anchor Brit Hume, in which three American shopping malls had been bombed, resulting in scores of casualties, and terrorists with detailed knowledge of another imminent and deadlier attack had been captured and taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The question was, "How far can the authorities go in interrogating the terrorists to get information to avert a fourth attack?" The most vehement champions of "enhanced interrogation" were the two men considered, along with McCain, to be front-runners in the nomination contest: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani said he would back "every method" short of torture that interrogators could think of, because "I don't want to see another 3,000 people dead in New York or anyplace else." Romney said he would support "not torture, but enhanced interrogation techniques." Romney also said he wanted the Guantanamo Bay detention center doubled in size.

In contrast, McCain said he would not resort to torture, because the United States would lose more in world opinion than it would gain in information. "When I was in Vietnam, one of the things that sustained us, as we went - underwent - torture ourselves is the knowledge that if we had our positions reversed and we were the captors, we would not impose that kind of treatment on them," McCain said. "It's not about the terrorists; it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are."

"Enhanced interrogation," a phrase frequently used and endorsed by President George W. Bush, refers to techniques prohibited by the Army's code of justice and the Geneva Conventions. One of these is known as waterboarding, where a prisoner is strapped down, head lower than his feet, as water is poured repeatedly on a cloth covering his mouth until the person thinks he is about to drown. While the putative front-runners appeared to be competing for the machismo award, the use of "enhanced interrogation" was also endorsed by others who are considered dark horses in the nomination race. For example, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado told the audience, "Well, let me just say that it's almost unbelievable to listen to this, in a way. We're talking about - we're talking about it in such a theoretical fashion. You say that - that nuclear devices have gone off in the United States, more are planned, and we're wondering about whether waterboarding would be a - a bad thing to do? I'm looking for 'Jack Bauer' at that time, let me tell you." Tancredo's remark was greeted with laughter and applause. His reference was to the controversial television series "24", in which the protagonist hero is an intelligence agent named Jack Bauer, who freely uses superaggressive interrogation techniques to obtain information. Tancredo added, "And - and there is - there is nothing - if you are talking about - I mean, we are the last best hope of Western civilization. And so, all of the theories that go behind our activities subsequent to these nuclear attacks going off in the United States, they go out the window because when - when we go under, Western civilization goes under. So you better take that into account, and you better do every single thing you can as president of the United States to make sure, No. 1, it doesn't happen - that's right - but No. 2, you better respond in a way that makes them fearful of you, because otherwise you guarantee something like this will happen."

Debate moderator Hume then said, "Let me enrich the scenario just a little bit. Let's assume for the sake of discussion here that we now also have additional intelligence that indicates with high certainty that the attackers were trained in a West African country hostile to the United States, in camps openly run by the terrorist organization that sent them. What kind of response would you agree to for that?" Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the superhawk former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, responded with a statement that was greeted with laughter. "Yeah, let me just say this would take a one-minute conversation with the secretary of defense. I would call him up or call him in. I would say to SECDEF, in terms of getting information that would save American lives, even if it involves very high-pressure techniques, one sentence: Get the information. Have it back within an hour, and let's act on it. Let's execute with Special Operations or whoever else is necessary, and I will take full responsibility. Get the information," he said. Hunter has been an outspoken champion of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, even calling a Washington news conference to show the press the "five-star cuisine" given the prisoners there.

Presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson, former governor of Wisconsin and secretary of health and human services in President Bush's first term, had this to say:

"I would do the first thing that President Ronald Reagan would say: Trust, but verify. Verify that that information is correct. And I would go in with all the power necessary. Colin Powell said, and I quote him, he says, 'If in fact you're going to war, have a reason to go to war. Make sure you go with all the force necessary in order to do so, and have an exit strategy.' If there's a country in Africa that is not friendly to America, that is anti-America and is promoting terrorism, and those terrorists are going to attack, it's ... be incumbent on all of us to make sure that we do what is right. The president of the United States has got to lead that effort, and if it's necessary, it's got to take those camps out as deliberately and as methodically as possible, as long as that information is credible and can be checked and make sure that it is accurate."

Hume asked Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, "If the decision were up to you, would you do that? And if so, would you decide to go to the United Nations, for example, first, to seek some kind of international authorization to do it, or would you just move in the way that Governor Thompson described?" Said Brownback: "I would not go to the United Nations in the situation you've described. You've described a situation where American lives have been lost, and we think more are pending to lose. And I think your real question you have to have here as the chief executive - as the leader of the country - what are you measuring here? Is your primary concern US lives or is it how you're going to be perceived in the world? And my standard is US lives, and I'm going to do everything within my power to protect US lives, period." Brownback added, "I will do it. I'll move aggressively forward on it. If we have to later ask and say, "Well, it shouldn't quite have been done this way or that way," that's the way it is. But the standard must be protection of US lives. That's the job of president of the United States, and I would take it seriously, and I would do it."

Romney's response was, "Yeah, first of all, let's make sure that we understand that the key in electing the next president is to find somebody who will make sure that that scenario doesn't ever happen, and the key to that is prevention. We've all spent a lot of time talking about what happens after the bomb goes off. The real question is, how do you prevent the bomb from going off? And that's what I spent my time doing as a governor over the last four years, and serving on the Homeland Security Advisory Council. And that means intelligence and counterterrorism." He continued. "Now we're going to - you said the person's going to be in Guantanamo. I'm glad they're at Guantanamo. I don't want them on our soil. I want them in Guantanamo, where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said, we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo. We ought to make sure that the terrorists - (applause) - and there's no question but that in a setting like that where you have a ticking bomb that the president of the United States - not the CIA interrogator, the president of the United States - has to make the call. And enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used - not torture, but enhanced interrogation techniques, yes."

President Bush has said he would like to close Guantanamo, but claims he cannot find countries prepared to take prisoners scheduled for release or facilities to detain those who are not. None of the contenders defined "enhanced interrogation techniques," but those in favor appeared to endorse waterboarding as one such technique. Hume then addressed Giuliani, saying, "The former director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, (and) the current head of the CIA have both said that the most valuable intelligence tool they have had has been the information gained from what are called enhanced interrogation techniques to include, presumably, waterboarding. What is your view whether such techniques should be applied in a scenario like the one I described?"

There then followed this exchange:

Giuliani: In the hypothetical that you gave me, which assumes that we know there's going to be another attack and these people know about it, I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of. It shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of ...

Hume: Waterboarding?

Giuliani: ... and I would - and I would - well, I'd say every method they could think of, and I would support them in doing that because I've seen what - (interrupted by applause) - I've seen what can happen when you make a mistake about this, and I don't want to see another 3,000 people dead in New York or anyplace else.

The contenders all reiterated their support of the war in Iraq. Said McCain: "We must succeed, and we cannot fail, and I will be the last man standing if necessary." Their agreement on this issue appeared to underscore South Carolina's importance in the party's nominating process. It is the third state in the nation to hold a primary, and it is also the state that destroyed McCain's run for the presidency in 2000. He lost to then-Governor Bush, after winning the New Hampshire primary.

Hume asked McCain if he thought techniques such as waterboarding qualified as torture. McCain responded, "Yes, and the interesting thing about that aspect is that during the debate, when we had the Detainee Treatment Act, there was a sharp division between those who had served in the military and those who hadn't. Virtually every senior officer, retired or active duty, starting with Colin Powell, (Presidential Medal of Honor winner) General (John W.) Vessey and everyone else, agreed with my position that we should not torture people. One of the reasons is because if we do it, what happens to our military people when they're captured? And also, they realize there's more to war than the battlefield." McCain went on: "So yes, literally every retired military person and active duty military person who has actually been in battle and served for extended times in the military - supported my position, and I'm glad of it.... It's about us as a nation. We have procedures for interrogation in the Army Field Manual. Those, I think, would be adequate in 999,999 [sic] cases, and I think that if we agree to torture people, we will do ourselves great harm in the world."

Hume then directed a question at former Virginia Governor James S. Gilmore. "This kind of attack would pose immediate and obvious problems for the US economy - they've hit shopping centers. What kind of measures would you take, Governor Gilmore, to assure that the US economy continued to grow in the face of an attack of this kind?" Gilmore said, "I actually had to deal with this issue. I was the governor of the state of Virginia during the 9/11 attack. The Pentagon was in fact struck; it's in Arlington, Virginia. But before that time, I'd been asked by the United States government to chair the National Commission on Terrorism and Homeland Security. We issued two reports. Before the 9/11 attack, the third one was complete. We did two more after that. So I have the experience to deal with these issues, and I've done a lot of scenarios like this.

Apparently unsatisfied, Hume pressed, "Well, what would you do?"

Gilmore responded, "Well, with respect to the United Nations, first of all, let me say that I would go to the UN, but it would be to state an opinion and to take advantage of our rights under international law, not to go ask for permission. And then I would go in, after having explained to the world exactly what we were doing and asking for world support - but even without it - we would go in and act decisively against that. Meanwhile, with respect to homeland security, we've got to put a system in place that talks about a complete partnership and community of preparedness between federal, state and local people, private sector community leadership, and that particularly means information sharing between federal, state and local authorities - something we said as early as the year 1999. And if you do that, I believe from my experience as prosecutor and attorney general, that you can get this information - and then find ways to protect the country, even in a shopping center."

Former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas addressed the subject of economic changes that might have to be made after a terrorist attack. He said, "One of the things that happened after 9/11 [was that] the president told us essentially that we all needed to get back on airplanes and fly, we all needed to go back to shopping centers and shop, we needed to go ahead and travel. And I understand what he meant by that - to put our economy back in motion. And I think that was a good thing to say, but it may have been interpreted by the American people as business as usual. The problem is, it'll never ever be business as usual when you attack innocent Americans on our soil. It can't be business as usual. We've got to make a different kind of business - go after those who murdered - and let's use the word 'murder' - murdered fellow American citizens, then let's make sure that we do more than simply protect our borders and bring justice to those who did it; but that we ask the American people to join together in a sacrifice, the same kind of sacrifice that we had when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, the same kind of sacrifice that we've been called upon as a nation repeatedly to do. That's what America would have to do."

Another dark horse, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, weighed in on the same question, saying, "Well, the lower the taxes the better, and I think cutting taxes would be beneficial. But we should find places where we could cut spending as well, because eventually a deficit can be very, very harmful to us. But you know, I think it's interesting talking about torture here, in that it's become enhanced interrogation technique. It sounds like Newspeak. Nobody's for the torture, and I think that's important. But as far as taking care of a problem like this, the president has the authority to do that. If we're under imminent attack, the president can take that upon himself to do it. But just think. We gave the president authority to go into Afghanistan, and here we have Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. They have nuclear weapons, and we're giving them money. And we forgot about him, and now we're over in - in Iraq in a war that's bogging us down, and we have forgotten against - about - dealing with the people who attacked us. And here you have a hypothetical attack that you're dealing with; we ought to be dealing with the one we have right now on our hands."

Earlier in the debate, Paul gave Giuliani what developed into a major opportunity, when he appeared to suggest that the US invited the attacks of September 11 by having originally invaded Iraq. "May I comment on that?" asked a grim-faced Giuliani. "That's really an extraordinary statement. That's an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don't think I've heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11." Giuliani was greeted by cheers and applause.

While all the major GOP presidential prospects save McCain were eager to trumpet their support of aggressive interrogation techniques, most military and counter-terrorism authorities have taken a contrary view. The most recent came on the same day as the South Carolina debate. In a Washington Post op-ed article, retired Marine Corps Commandant Charles C. Krulak and retired four-star Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar wrote: "Fear can be a strong motivator. It led Franklin Roosevelt to intern tens of thousands of innocent US citizens during World War II; it led to Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunt, which ruined the lives of hundreds of Americans. And it led the United States to adopt a policy at the highest levels that condoned and even authorized torture of prisoners in our custody. "Fear is the justification offered for this policy by former CIA director George Tenet as he promotes his new book. Tenet oversaw the secret CIA interrogation program, in which torture techniques euphemistically called 'waterboarding,' 'sensory deprivation,' 'sleep deprivation' and 'stress positions' - conduct that we used to call war crimes - were used. In defending these abuses, Tenet revealed: 'Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through: the palpable fear that we felt on the basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know.'" That view is shared by most members of the military who have intelligence experience. These include former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who wrote a public letter to McCain opposing Bush's detention policies. "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," Powell observed. "To redefine common article 3 [of the Geneva Conventions] would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk."

Powell's letter came amid the 2005 battle between the Bush administration and some members of the Senate to stop the president's bid to legalize torture and ad hoc military tribunals. That effort was thwarted - not by Democrats, but by four key Republican senators: McCain, John Warner of Virginia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine. Their success culminated in passage of the Detainee Treatment Act, which the president signed into law, but simultaneously nullified by issuing a "signing statement" saying, in effect, he would obey the law unless he thought national security was at stake.

The deal resulted from a so-called compromise between Bush and the four senators. The president had barely announced the deal before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made it clear that the administration would define torture any way it liked. He said on CNN that torture meant the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental harm, and repeated the word "severe" twice. He would not say whether that included "waterboarding

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