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Where does Donald Trump stand on the use of torture by US security agencies? During the presidential election campaign he notoriously recommended a return to waterboarding, the repeated near-drowning of detainees that was banned by President Obama in 2009. But last week The New York Times reported that in an interview with its senior staff, he said that he had changed his mind after talking with retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, who is a leading candidate to be the next secretary of defence.
Trump quoted Gen Mattis as saying that “I’ve never found it [waterboarding] to be useful”. He had found it more advantageous to gain the cooperation of terrorist suspects by other means: “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better.” Trump recalled that he was very impressed by the answer, adding that torture is “not going to make the kind of difference that a lot of people are thinking”.
Trump’s remarks were taken by The New York Times as a sign that the President-elect had changed his mind about waterboarding. Unfortunately, the full transcript of his talk, as pointed out by Fred Kaplan in Salon, shows exactly the opposite. Trump did indeed say that he was surprised by what Mattis said because the general was known for his toughness, but the President-elect went on to explain that “I’m not saying it changed my mind about torture”.
He added that “we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard”. Though he had been given pause by what Mattis told him, he was convinced that “if it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that.”
The initial misreporting may have stemmed from wishful thinking by The New York Times reporters – and American liberals in general – who hope that the most outrageous pieces of Trump demagoguery during the election were off-the-cuff campaign rhetoric which he is now abandoning. A pledge to prosecute Hillary Clinton is apparently being discarded, as is a plan for the immediate construction of a wall to seal off the Mexican border. The abandonment of agreements on climate change and on Iran’s nuclear programme are becoming less categorical and more nuanced.
But this is not so much a sign of a more moderate Trump emerging as it is fresh evidence of his shallowness and flippancy. He tells people whom he wants to influence exactly what they want to hear. Nothing is off limits. He not only flatters his audience, but does so in a way that is thrilling and attention-grabbing and sure to dominate the news agenda.
This sort of tough guy talk is scarcely unique to Trump, but a common feature of American political leadership. Hillary Clinton frequently made distasteful boasts about her self-inflated role in the killing of Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi. Trump likewise uses and misuses macho slogans more than most politicians and then disowns them when they have served their purpose.
But he does not disown all his election pledges and he has not disowned the one on waterboarding, banned by President Obama by means of an executive order, which is much more important than the prosecution of Clinton or building the Mexican wall. Ever since 9/11, and more particularly since the rise of Isis, there has been debate about the radicalisation of Muslims and how this might be prevented. Saudi-sponsored madrassas and imams have been blamed, with some reason, but a much simpler cause of radicalisation has nothing to do with the slow imbibing of extreme Islamist ideology. This is anger and a desire to retaliate provoked by specific injustices such as waterboarding, rendition of suspects to be tortured and the abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, which acted as powerful and persuasive recruiting sergeants for Isis and Islamic extremism.
Keeping this in mind, it is important to realise that the US now has a President-elect who has just restated that he believes in the value of waterboarding. His views will not pass unnoticed among the 1.6 billion Muslims who make up 23 per cent of the world’s population and know that Muslims were the main victims of these abuses. Some members of the Trump administration, like General Mattis or General Michael Flynn, the National Security Advisor, do not believe in torture, but others say that it works and that any criticism of it is unpatriotic.
Such senior figures include the newly appointed head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Congressman and a supporter of the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party. He has backed interrogation techniques amounting to torture and greater domestic surveillance by the NSA. He sees Christianity and Islam as engaged in a titanic struggle. Speaking in 2015 before a Christian flag at a church in his district that focuses on “Satanism and paranormal activity”, he spoke of the “struggle against radical Islam, the kind of struggle this country has not faced since its great wars”, and warned that “evil is all around us”. He advised the congregation not to be put off by people who might call them “Islamophobes or bigots”. On another occasion, he denounced a mosque in Kansas for holding a speaking event which coincided with Good Friday.
As for Guantanamo, Pompeo described it as “a goldmine of intelligence about radical Islamic terrorism. I have travelled to GTMO and have seen the honourable and professional behaviour of the American men and women in uniform, who serve at the detention facility.” He denounced the release of the revelatory 2014 Senate report on torture, saying that “these men and women [the interrogators] are not torturers, they are patriots. The programmes being used were within the law, within the constitution.”
It is worth recalling what waterboarding and other types of torture of which Trump and Pompeo approve really consists of. The 2014 US Senate Report on torture by the CIA, publication of which Pompeo denounced, described waterboarding as a “series of near drownings”, in addition to which detainees were subjected to sleep deprivation for up to a week and medically unnecessary “rectal feeding”. One CIA officer described prisoners being held in a “dungeon”, and interrogation leading to “hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation”. The report concludes that the CIA had lied about the number of detainees, their treatment, and had fed sympathetic journalists with false information about valuable intelligence acquired by means of torture.
The “waterboarding” approved by Trump and Pompeo was only one in a range of torture techniques used by the CIA before they were banned, according to testimony in the case of of Abd al-Rahim Hussein Muhammad al-Nashiri in a US appeals court hearing earlier this year. In addition to artificially induced suffocation, detainees “were kept naked, shackled to the wall, and given buckets for their waste. On one occasion, Al-Nashiri was forced to keep his hands on the wall and not given food for three days. To induce sleep deprivation, detainees were shackled to a bar on the ceiling, forcing them to stand with their arms above their heads.” By such means Trump intends to make America great again.