Has Donald Trump been talking to the voices in his head?
I can think of no other explanation for his statement to ABC News earlier this week that so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”—bureaucratese for “torture”—are “absolutely” effective. While he acknowledged that his top two advisors on this subject, Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, have both disavowed torture, he added: “I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence, and I asked them the question ‘Does it work? Does torture work?’ And the answer was ‘Yes, absolutely.'”
Who are these top-echelon spooks jonesing for more torture? Certainly not Mark Fallon, the special agent who helped interrogate 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Fallon has said torture produces little valuable information, and the scraps that are extracted can be obtained through conventional methods anyway. You can also rule out Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent, who successfully extracted information from top terrorist Abu Zubaydah using humane techniques, until his prisoner was snatched away by the CIA and waterboarded 83 times. He, too, says torture is ineffective.
Many others, including former CIA director John Brennan, have said that even if a future president does authorize waterboarding, the agency will refuse to follow the order. “I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure,” Brennan said. By “this institution,” he means the CIA, for whom enhanced interrogation techniques, probed and revealed in a Senate investigation that was released to the public back in 2014, became a humiliating scarlet letter. Read that quote again: “this institution needs to endure”—Brennan and his agents were so scarred by the fallout from torture that they regard it now as an existential threat to Langley itself.
The 500-something-page executive summary of the Senate’s investigation, which I read in its entirety two years ago, is deeply unsettling. The T-word is applicable throughout: CIA interrogators tortured their prisoners, at least 26 of whom were wrongly held, waterboarding them until they vomited, stripping them down, chaining them to the floor and ceiling, assaulting them with loud noises, force-feeding them through their rectums, threatening to sexually assault their mothers, forcing them to stand for 180 hours at a time. One detainee died of hypothermia. The waterboarding of the aforementioned Zubaydah was so brutal that it brought his CIA handlers to tears.
None of this resulted in any actionable intelligence that couldn’t have been obtained through conventional methods, a fact painstakingly established in the Senate report, which carefully dismantles brick-by-brick every argument made by the torture apologists. No, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not give up Osama bin Laden’s location in Pakistan after being repeatedly waterboarded. No, Zubaydah did not relinquish information that led to Mohammed’s capture.
The only exclusive revelations elicited by torture techniques were false ones, like Ibn Shaikh al-Libi’s claim, made under duress after being waterboarded in an Egyptian prison, that Osama bin Laden had dispatched two al Qaeda members to Iraq for chemical weapons training. Aha, said the Bush administration, which included the allegation in Colin Powell’s infamous speech to the UN. Libi later confessed that the entire thing was a falsification. “They were killing me,” he said. “I had to tell them something.”
This was the poisonous fruit of the Bush administration’s—and specifically Dick Cheney’s—voyage over to what Jane Mayer calls “the dark side,” the feebly illuminated foreign dungeons, the gurneys with bottles of water sitting ominously on tray tables nearby. It was the milieu of oppressive third-world regimes, yet necessary, Cheney and others believed, to prosecute the war on terror. In order to defeat the enemy, we needed to become just a little bit like him, and then a little bit more, and then a little bit more, until eventually even George W. Bush was disquieted, after seeing an image of a detainee chained from the ceiling who had soiled himself. This was American policy during Bush’s war on terror, debasing, disturbing, fruitless.
So the question remains: Who at the CIA told Trump he should resurrect all this? And will they be attending Trump’s tea party next week with the rest of his imaginary friends?