If Donald Trump is serious about wanting to waterboard terrorists, he’d better bring his own bucket, former CIA director Michael Hayden says, because the CIA isn’t going down that road again.
Hayden’s pithy line, which he first uttered in a Showtime documentary and repeated to NBC News, underscores a serious issue: the GOP frontrunner has vowed to bring back torture if he becomes president, but current and former CIA officials say the agency feels so burned by what happened when its post 9/11 interrogation program was exposed that it would refuse any such orders.
“Multiple investigations, grand juries, presidential condemnations, and congressional star chambers have a way of doing that to you,” Hayden, who was CIA director at the end of the George W. Bush administration, told NBC News.
He then offered an even stronger version of his Showtime quote. “Like the man said, if you want somebody waterboarded, bring your own damn bucket.”
Trump said Wednesday he is convinced that “torture works,” so he would bring back waterboarding and “much stronger” methods. Other Republican candidates haven’t been as explicit, but some have called for bringing back the harsh interrogations that were repudiated by President Obama when he took office.
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But current and former CIA officials, including some who played key roles in the post-9/11 terrorist detention program, say the fallout from that controversial episode has left the spy agency unwilling ever again to conduct coercive interrogations. That would be true, they say, even if the country was attacked again and Congress undid the law it passed last year banning harsh techniques.
“I can’t imagine anyone volunteering to do it,” said Bill Harlow, a former CIA spokesman who coordinated a response to the Senate report and has co-authored the memoirs of several former senior CIA officials.
At issue is whether the U.S. could reprise the brutal interrogations the CIA carried out on al Qaeda operatives after the 9/11 attacks, including the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, which was used on 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and two others. Other coercive techniques included sleep deprivation, slapping, humiliation, nudity, fear and isolation, often used in combination.
There is stark disagreement over whether the techniques worked, but polls show public majorities believe they did.
The CIA personnel who supervised and carried out so-called “enhanced” interrogations on 39 prisoners at secret sites abroad after the September 11 terror attacks were subject to lengthy criminal investigations that required them to hire personal lawyers. Their internal correspondence was laid bare in a Senate report that accused the CIA of repeatedly lying about the nature and effectiveness of the techniques. Some CIA personnel were publicly pilloried.
"We should go much stronger than waterboarding. That's the way I feel."
All that happened even though the interrogation program was ordered by President Bush and sanctioned by Justice Department lawyers.
The legal opinions in question were later repudiated as flawed, and some experts believe the harsher techniques were never lawful. The Senate report concluded that the techniques were more brutal than the CIA let on, and that they didn’t produce unique and life-saving intelligence. FBI officials — who refused to participate -- also concluded the techniques didn’t work. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-California), the architect of the report, called the CIA program “a stain on our values.”
The CIA officers involved vehemently disagree — and they feel betrayed.
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Hundreds of them still work at the CIA, noted John Rizzo, a former top agency lawyer who helped negotiate the interrogation program with the White House and Justice Department.
They feel, he said, that they did what was asked of them to stop terrorism, and after “the political winds changed, they were vilified as `torturers’ and `war criminals,’ — just for doing their thankless and dangerous jobs to keep the country safe.”
“And now, under a Trump administration,” said Rizzo, “many of these same CIA career officers would be ordered to go down -- perhaps double down -- on that perilous path again? Who could blame for them for refusing to expose themselves and their families to a reprise someday of the ordeal they have had to endure? I hope and trust no CIA director -- or its lawyer -- would countenance such an order."
President Obama banned the techniques when he took office, and Congress last year enshrined that ban into law.
The CIA no longer conducts its own interrogations, and a relatively small number of terrorism suspects have been captured alive during the Obama administration. Some intelligence officials find irony in the fact that many thousands have been killed by drone missiles or bombs.
But though many CIA officers believe it makes sense to capture and grill terrorists beyond the strictures of the U.S. Army field manual, which is the current standard -- they want no part in doing so.
“They didn’t expect people in their own government to turn on them, and they didn’t expect people in Congress to develop amnesia about what they were briefed on,” Harlow said.
Some lawmakers have said they were misled about the techniques when briefed in secret, something CIA officials dispute.
When the Obama administration made public the once-secret legal memos authorizing the techniques in 2009, Hayden, whose memoir, “Playing to the Edge," is to be published next week, described it as a “breach of faith that would, over the long term, cause CIA officers not to take certain actions.”
On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly spoken about how he would treat terror suspects. He has also called for killing the family members of terrorists, which experts say would be a war crime.
“Cheat me once, shame on you. Cheat me twice....”
Trump wants to bring back including waterboarding and “much stronger” interrogation methods he hasn’t named.
The U.S. should respond to ISIS’s grisly brutality in kind, he says.
“Believe me, it works,” Trump said. “And waterboarding is your minor form. Some people say it's not actually torture. Let's assume it is. But they asked me the question: What do you think of waterboarding? Absolutely fine. But we should go much stronger than waterboarding. That's the way I feel. They're chopping off heads. Believe me, we should go much stronger, because our country's in trouble. We're in danger. We have people that want to do really bad things!”
His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the reluctance of intelligence officials to reboot enhanced interrogation.
No other candidate has gone as far as Trump, but some Republicans have declined to rule out bringing back harsh techniques. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has said he would capture terrorists, bring them the prison at Guantanamo, and “find out everything they know,” though he hasn’t said how.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who first appeared to take a stand against brutal interrogations, later said waterboarding isn’t torture, and he declined to rule out using harsh techniques.
Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel for Human Rights Watch, says it’s worrisome that major GOP candidates are calling for resuming torture. This wouldn’t be happening had the Justice Department prosecuted some of the perpetrators instead of declining to file charges, she said. She’s not confident the law on the books would prevent a future president from ordering torture in some form.
“We’ve seen in the past that certain administrations have tried to figure out creative ways to get around those rules,” said Pitter, “and it’s possible that another administration will do so again.”
One wrinkle is that many Americans appear to be closer to Trump than to Obama and Pitter on the matter.
Polls show that a majority of Americans think the treatment of terror suspects by the CIA was justified, even if the word torture is used to describe that treatment.
If there ever was another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, many Americans might demand that terror suspects be captured and made to talk.
But who would make them? Not the CIA, Hayden and other current and former officers say.
“Cheat me once, shame on you,” Hayden said. “Cheat me twice....”