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Making American Torture Great Again

Trump ran on promises to resurrect the torture techniques authorized by the Bush administration after 9/11.

American Torture

by Lisa Hajjar

Early on in Donald Trump’s bid to be the Republican Party nominee for president of the United States, he pledged to bring back the waterboard and “a whole lot worse.” (Waterboarding is a torture technique that involves strapping a person to a board and dousing his cloth-covered face with water to cause the sensation of drowning.)

 Like most of the other Republican contenders who vied for the 2016 nomination (and eleven of the twelve Republican contenders in the 2012 race), Trump ran on promises to resurrect the torture techniques authorized by the Bush administration after 9/11. Trump’s pro-torture premise is that these techniques “work,” that the kinds of people subjected to waterboarding and other forms of brutality during interrogation deserved it, and that their cancelation by President Obama in 2009 was a mistake. On the campaign trail, Trump liked to whip up supporters with the idea that torturing people is one of the ways he will “make America great again.”

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party nominee, made no such campaign promises to restore torture. But she gave no indication that, had she been elected, she would pursue accountability for torture, which is a crime, or declassify information necessary to reshape public discourse to reverse the trend in which, today, nearly half of Americans would accept or endorse the use of torture under certain circumstances because they have been led to believe it works, or that those foreign Muslims subjected to torture deserved it.

Indeed, popular support for torture has become a litmus test for a particular brand of hard-eyed patriotism on the American political landscape. And that brand has prevailed with the election of Donald Trump and the reinforcement of Republican control over both houses of Congress. Immediately after winning the election, Trump listed resurrecting the waterboard as one of his top five priorities. Indeed, if a Trump administration reinstitutes torture techniques as a matter of policy, this inevitably will provide a political veneer of legitimacy for other governments that use torture for their own national security or domestic repression purposes.

American pro-torture discourse can be divided into two general categories: One category, exemplified by former Vice President Dick Cheney and the White House and Justice Department lawyers of the Bush administration who engaged in calculated reinterpretations to greenlight torture, is the quasi-intellectual project to “legalize” the illegal on the principal that the pursuit of national security should not be constrained by international law. John Bolton, who has been tapped to be the number-two person in a Trump administration State Department, is a harsh and preeminent critic of international law, which he regards as inimical to the international projection of US power and sovereign prerogatives.

The other category, which Trump himself exemplifies, is the aggressively anti-intellectual position characterized by ignorance about torture and the law, and indifference to the universal principal of human dignity which is scorned as some “politically correct” liberal fiction. Trump’s aggressive ignorance was on display when he interviewed Retired Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis for the position of Secretary of Defense. Trump asked Mattis: “What do you think of waterboarding?” He described himself as “surprised” by Mattis’ answer: “I’ve never found it to be useful.” Trump continued:

And I was very impressed by that answer....It’s not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that [emphasis added]. But General Mattis found it to be very less important [sic], much less important than I thought he would say. I thought he would say — you know he’s known as Mad Dog Mattis, right? Mad Dog for a reason. I thought he’d say “It’s phenomenal, don’t lose it.” He actually said, “No, give me some cigarettes and some drinks, and we’ll do better."

But Trump’s anti-intellectual punchline is: “I'm not saying it changed my mind.”

Many Americans who support torture would fall into the latter category because they know (or care) little or nothing about the use of torture in the “war on terror,” or its consequences. Such ignorance is hardly surprising since so many aspects of the torture program are still secret, and because publicly available information has been assiduously reinterpreted by pro-torture officials and pundits into something necessary and good.

Secrecy and denial function together to fertilize public ignorance about the fact that the post-9/11 torture program was illegal and counterproductive to the very goals of national security for which it was instituted. US torture served as one of the major recruitment tools for the old and new organizations against which the United States remains at war, including the Islamic State. The torture program damaged relations with some allies and degraded respect for international law norms and rules on a global scale. On top of that, it was an utter failure in producing actionable intelligence. In 2012, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) completed a 6,700-page investigative report on the CIA’s RDI (Rendition, Interrogation, and Detention) program. This report, which remains classified except for the heavily redacted 500-page executive summary released in December 2014, purportedly contains abundant evidence and analysis of its failures and strategic costs. The importance of this report cannot be underestimated because it is the most authoritative account of the torture program.

Some of the people Trump wants to install in his cabinet are champions of secrecy and denial about torture. Two nominees in particular have distinguished themselves as proponents of public ignorance: Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator who Trump has selected to be Attorney General, has been a strident critic of the SSCI report and supported calls to have all existing copies destroyed. Mike Pompeo, the Kansas senator who Trump has selected to be the next head of the CIA, has disparaged the integrity and patriotism of those who have urged that the report be released.

While political partisanship goes part of the way toward understanding American support for torture, the problem is by no means confined to the Republican Party. President Obama has his own ignominious legacy of secrecy and denial. He chose to blockade accountability for the officials and state agents responsible for the torture program, which he justified as a means of “looking forward, not backward” and rationalized as benevolence toward people acting in good faith under difficult circumstances. His administration fed public ignorance by shielding rather than exposing information and adopting an unprecedently punitive approach to whistleblowers who leaked classified material about torture and other illegal government policies. And like its predecessor, the Obama administration denied any justice to torture victims by invoking the states’ secrets doctrine to shut down lawsuits rather than allow them to proceed. 

Obama’s record is not “pro-torture” per se, but neither is it boldly “anti-torture.” Americans’ support for torture swelled during the last eight years not despite what he did but because of what he did not do. Perhaps he felt chastened by the 2016 election that will install a pro-torture president in the White House, the Republican sweep of Congress, and the selection of some torture enthusiasts for key positions in the next administration. He used the power he has in his remaining days in office to do something, but not something bold. He finally responded to requests to ensure that the SSCI report will not be destroyed. The report will be preserved in the archive of Presidential Records. But he ordered that it should remain classified and access restricted for the maximum time allowed by law: twelve years.

And so, thanks to Obama, the secrets will remain secret, and the lies and fabrications about the efficacy of torture or its compatibility with “the law” will continue to be bought and sold in the public square. Trump just got a big leg up for his plan to make American torture great again.

 Lisa Hajjar is a professor of sociology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and in 2014-2015 she is the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. Her research and writing focus on law and legality, war and conflict, human rights, and torture. She is the author of Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza (University of California Press, 2005) and Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights (Routledge, 2013). In addition to being a Co-Editor at Jadaliyya, she serves on the editorial committees of Middle East Report and Journal of Palestine Studies. She is currently working on a book about anti-torture lawyering in the United States.


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