clock menu more-arrow no yes

Why Republicans are debating bringing back torture

John McCain is very angry about the way the Republican race is going — on the specific issue of torturing detainees suspected of terrorism.

"It's been so disappointing to see some presidential candidates engaged in loose talk on the campaign trail about reviving waterboarding and other inhumane interrogation techniques," McCain, who was himself tortured while he was held prisoner during the Vietnam War, said during a Tuesday Senate speech. "Our enemies act without conscience. We must not."

McCain has good reason to be angry. Several Republicans have suggested that they'd be open to torturing suspected terrorists if elected — especially New Hampshire primary winner Donald Trump.

"Waterboarding is fine, and much tougher than that is fine," Trump said at a Monday campaign event in New Hampshire. "When we're with these animals, we can't be soft and weak, like our politicians."

Previously, Trump promised to "bring back" types of torture "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding" during Saturday's Republican debate. The rest of the GOP field took a somewhat more nuanced position. Marco Rubio categorically refused to rule out any torture techniques, for fear of helping terrorists "practice how to evade us."

Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, by contrast, both said they oppose repealing the legislation that currently bans US intelligence and military officials from torturing.

This debate doesn't have much to do with the merits of torture as an intelligence-gathering mechanism: The evidence that torture doesn't work is overwhelming. Rather, the debate among four leading Republicans over the practice is all about politics, both inside the Republican Party and more broadly.

Ted Cruz captures the weirdness of the GOP debate on torture

GOP Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz Holds New Hampshire Primary Night Gathering (Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images)

Cruz, for example, has said that waterboarding does not constitute torture, but also that he would not "bring it back in any sort of widespread use" and has co-sponsored legislation limiting its use.

But you can see the contours of the GOP debate over torture with Cruz nonetheless refusing to rule out waterboarding absolutely and, at Saturday's debate, refusing to label it as torture:

Well, under the definition of torture, no, it's not. Under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems, so under the definition of torture, it is not. It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture.

Cruz is referring to a 2002 Bush administration memo, known as the "Bybee memo" after Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, that defined torture as only something that caused pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."

But the Bush administration itself rescinded the Bybee memo, along with another similar memo, in 2004. And international law, under both the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, considers waterboarding a form of torture and thus illegal.

When pressed, Cruz said it was counterproductive to institute torture as a rule, but also that the president shouldn't be barred from using it, citing a bizarre hypothetical straight out of an episode of 24:

But when it comes to keeping this country safe, the commander in chief has inherent constitutional authority to keep this country safe. And so, if it were necessary to, say, prevent a city from facing an imminent terrorist attack, you can rest assured that as commander in chief, I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe.

Bush's opposition was much clearer. When asked if he'd attempt to repeal the congressional ban on torture, he said, simply, "I wouldn't."

Bush then added that "it was used sparingly" during his brother's presidency, but also that "I think where we stand is the appropriate place" today — with torture banned. So while his measured defense of his brother's use of torture isn't going to win any plaudits from Amnesty International, Bush ultimately signaled he prefers a policy of no torture.

The partisan torture gap

Amnesty International Protests U.S. Detentions At Guantanamo (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When reports first broke in 2004 of waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay, Americans largely rejected the practice. A January 2005 Gallup poll found that 82 percent of Americans believed "strapping prisoners on boards and forcing their heads underwater until they think they are drowning" was an immoral interrogation tactic.

But the issue rapidly became partisan. In 2007, 40 percent of Americans favored waterboarding suspected terrorists in a CNN poll, while 58 percent opposed. By 2014, 49 percent told CBS that they believed waterboarding could be at least sometimes justified, while only 36 percent said it never could be.

The same pattern held true with more general questions about torture. Between 2004 and 2011, Pew ran an annual poll asking Americans whether torturing suspected terrorists could be justified "often," "sometimes," "rarely," or "never." In the first five years of the poll, FiveThirtyEight's Brittany Lyte reports, the majority consistently said that torture could only be justified "rarely" or "never."

But in 2009, something changed: In that year, and every year after, a majority said torture was either "sometimes" or "often" justified.

What's going on? The answer seems pretty clear: political partisanship.

Ever since 2004, Democrats have — rightly! — been bashing George W. Bush for encouraging the CIA to torture detainees. As a result, Republicans in government and the media felt compelled to defend it. This debate filtered down, reshaping opinions on torture along partisan lines.

We can see this in the data. Three political scientists — Paul Gronke, Darius Rejali, and Peter Miller — tracked the percentage of Americans who viewed torture positively between 2001 and 2011. They found a clear gap between Republicans (in green) and Democrats (in blue) — but that support was nonetheless rising across the board:

(Paul Gronke, Darius Rejali and Peter Miller)

Their research finds that GOP elites are responsible for the partisan gap. "Public opinion on torture follows the same pattern of partisan 'sorting' that Professor Matthew Levendusky describes in his recent book, where partisan adherents readjust their beliefs on issues to correspond to the signals they hear from party elites," Gronke et al. write.

Today, 73 percent of Republicans support torturing suspected terrorists, according to Pew. Torture now has a constituency among Republicans, which helps explain why some GOP candidates are either embracing or refusing to condemn it.

Any Republican who took a strong stance against waterboarding or other torture techniques could be pegged as weak on terrorism — a damning charge in a Republican primary that's been preoccupied with ISIS.

Reminder: Torture is morally abhorrent and also doesn't work

Political logic aside, it's important to recognize how terrible it is that we're debating bringing back torture.

Waterboarding involves forcing water down someone's lungs to induce the sensation of drowning. This causes the body to release stress hormones so powerful they can literally cause heart attacks. "Even healthy people can die from sheer terror," Scientific American reported in 2009.

The late Christopher Hitchens once voluntarily underwent waterboarding, just to see whether it was torture. He concluded, unequivocally, that it was.

"The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face," he recalled in a Vanity Fair essay. "Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted."

Some proponents will claim that while morally regrettable, torture is nonetheless necessary to keep us safe. But the best evidence suggests that it this is a false choice: Waterboarding, and other forms of torture, does not work.

In most cases, torture is used by authoritarian states to force false confessions. The pain, as Hitchens vividly describes, is so overwhelming that people will say anything to make it stop. That's great if you're an Iranian interrogator trying to force a dissident into admitting he's a CIA agent — but it's not so good if you're a CIA agent trying to get accurate information about a terrorist group's operations.

Mark Fallon, a former NCIS agent and interrogator who now chairs the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, a US government body tasked with reviewing evidence on interrogation practices, has argued as much.

"I don’t want to force people to tell me things," Fallon told Newsweek last year, "because then they will tell me things they don’t even know."

This tracks with what we know about the US government's use of torture. The 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the subject, by far the most comprehensive review of the record, found that CIA officers "regularly" voiced concerns that torture was failing to produce intelligence.

The report examined 20 cases where the CIA publicly claimed that torture helped foil a terrorist attack, and found the agency's claims "wrong in fundamental respects." The evidence that torture did not aid the hunt for Osama bin Laden is particularly compelling.

In other words, some GOP candidates' pro-torture sentiment isn't just a relic of Bush-era partisan debates — it's also totally out of whack with everything we know about the practice of torture today.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.