WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump’s nominees for attorney general and homeland security secretary both said Tuesday that waterboarding is torture and promised to abide by a 2015 law that prohibits its use.
“Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture in the United States by our military and by all our other departments and agencies,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s pick for attorney general, told senators during his confirmation hearing.
Sessions voted against that 2015 prohibition on torture. At the time, he said he believes “the CIA and the FBI should be able to use all lawful procedures to interrogate individuals who are committed to the destruction of America.”
It’s significant that Sessions agreed that waterboardng is a form of torture because defenders of the procedure insist that it isn’t.
Retired Gen. John Kelly also said that if confirmed to lead the Department of Homeland Security, he will make sure officials abide by the law.
“I don’t think we should ever come close to crossing a line that is beyond what we as Americans would expect to follow in terms of interrogation techniques,” Kelly told Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who asked him about his personal views on waterboarding and torture.
During the presidential campaign, Trump was a big fan of waterboarding.
“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would ― in a heartbeat,” Trump said in November 2015. “And I would approve more than that. Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, OK? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.”
In February, Trump said “torture works” and reiterated that he “would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding.”
But Trump has started to indicate he might be open to shifting on this issue. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s choice to be secretary of defense, has told the president-elect it’s an ineffective technique. Trump described their conversation in an interview with The New York Times:
General Mattis is a strong, highly dignified man. I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, what do you think of waterboarding? He said ― I was surprised ― he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he’s known as being like the toughest guy. And when he said that, I’m not saying it changed my mind.
Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard. But I’ll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer. It certainly does not — 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. But General Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say.
The comments by Sessions and Kelly indicate that Trump may get pushback from his Cabinet members if he tries to reinstate waterboarding.
“Senator Sessions has confirmed what the human rights community has emphasized for years: Waterboarding is ‘absolutely illegal and improper.’ ... If confirmed as attorney general, Sessions will be responsible for upholding the law and must stand firm against any efforts to reintroduce such heinous practices,” said Sarah Dougherty, senior anti-torture fellow with Physicians for Human Rights. “Any other stance would violate or circumvent the absolute ban on torture.”
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