WASHINGTON ― Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump horrified human rights defenders and the military’s top brass when he claimed during the primary that “torture works” and promised to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” if he becomes commander in chief.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) was brought on as Trump’s running mate in an effort to make the ticket more palatable to conservative voters who are repulsed by Trump’s extreme positions. But Pence’s past public comments leave little room for optimism. Statements he’s made about using torture against prisoners picked up on the battlefield suggest he would be unlikely to try to stop a President Trump from reinstating interrogation tactics that are now explicitly banned in the U.S.
During a May 2008 congressional hearing on the use of torture ― in the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency ― Pence, then an Indiana congressman, dismissed the idea that non-coercive interrogation methods could be effective against suspected terrorists. He referred to the well-established practice of building relationships with suspects in order to extract information from them as “Oprah Winfrey methods” and suggested that, in some cases, the U.S. would justified in using harsher tactics, ThinkProgress reported at the time:
“Some have said relationship-building interrogation techniques are preferable and even more reliable in the long run than stress methods. They raise the question though, what about the hard cases? Like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was a mastermind of this a September 11 attacks in this country. How would you respond to the observation that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed probably is not susceptible to relationship-building methods? I can tell by your grin that you acknowledge the somewhat absurd thought that you could move people who have masterminded the death of 3,000 Americans by Oprah Winfrey methods. How would you have sought, how do you think the United States should seek to gain information from a mastermind like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed if he refuses to answer questions voluntarily, when additional American lives could be on the line with information that he is refusing to provide?”
In a later hearing in July, Pence said he understood that “torture is illegal, torture is banned by various provisions of the law.” But he also argued that had the U.S. granted Mohammed prisoner of war status ― which would have provided him with extra protections under the Geneva Conventions ― he “could not have been interrogated beyond his name, rank and serial number.”
The argument over whether Mohammed and other detainees captured during the post-Sept. 11 “war on terror” should have been classified as prisoners of war or “unlawful enemy combatants” ― as the Bush administration ultimately decided ― is worth having. But it is separate from the question of whether or not it is ever acceptable to torture detainees, regardless of their legal status.
In the years since the revelations about U.S.-government sanctioned torture in secret prisons, veteran interrogators have written extensively on their experiences, concluding that torturing prisoners doesn’t provide useful intelligence. It might get them to talk, but the information they provide will not necessarily be true. That makes sense: if a person is being tortured, it is only natural that they will say anything to make the pain stop.
Pence’s 2008 comments predate much of the public discourse about the immorality and inefficacy of torture as an interrogation method ― but high-ranking military officials had already rejected the use of torture by that time.
“Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy,” Gen. David Petraeus said in a 2007 memo to troops in Iraq. “That would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone ‘talk;’ however, what the individual says may be of questionable value.”
The U.S. has taken considerable measures to prevent the military or intelligence agencies from torturing prisoners again. President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning torture in 2009. And Congress, led by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), last year codified the Army Field Manual as the standard for interrogations, ostensibly providing more oversight over the methods used. Former CIA director Michael Hayden, who has defended coercive interrogation methods, said the agency would reject orders from Trump to waterboard prisoners.
Despite Hayden’s prediction, it’s possible that a future president could wind back the progress the U.S. has made in rejecting torture ― which makes Pence’s past comments all the more disturbing.
Torture was very much illegal when the Bush administration instituted it as policy. The Obama administration has opted against holding anyone accountable for the torture program, which human rights advocates say limits deterrence for future officials to take similar actions. Twenty-one of the 54 Republicans in the Senate voted against last year’s congressional effort to further outlaw the practice. And while adhering to the Army Field Manual for interrogation practices is a step in the right direction, there is still room for abuse within the techniques allowed by that guide.
Perhaps most importantly, a March Reuters poll found that two-thirds of Americans still believe torture is justified as a way to get information from suspected terrorists.
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Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.