Top Senate Democrats said Friday that President Donald Trump will face strong bipartisan hurdles in Congress if he moves to change the law or guidelines that currently forbid waterboarding terror suspects, arguing that harsh interrogation measures are immoral and an ineffective means of eliciting reliable intelligence.
"Torture is immoral and deeply contrary to the principles of this nation," the senators wrote in a Feb. 2 letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. "Beyond that, it is widely recognized as ineffective and even counterproductive, as it produces unreliable information. The use of torture and secret foreign prisons were a boon to terrorist groups, helping their propaganda and recruitment efforts."
The Democrats — senior members of the intelligence, armed services, judiciary, foreign relations and appropriations committees — say they oppose provisions in a draft executive order that called for a sweeping review of how America conducts the war on terror.
The draft order called for reviewing a possible resumption of banned harsh interrogation methods and reopening CIA-run "black site" prisons outside the United States. The draft also instructed the Pentagon to send newly captured "enemy combatants" to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, instead of closing the detention facility as President Barack Obama had wanted.
"These practices frayed our relations with key allies, some of whom have faced legal liability before their own or international courts," the senators wrote. "Similarly, these practices put our own forces and personnel at risk of legal liability and being subjected to harsh treatment when they are detained."
The Trump administration denied that the draft order that news organizations, including The Associated Press, obtained last week was an official White House document. Still, Democrats, human rights groups and others fear the president will eventually issue a presidential order similar to the draft. The document said U.S. laws should be obeyed at all times and explicitly rejects "torture," but does not address the possibility that Trump might seek to change the law or rewrite the Army Field Manual, which lays out interrogation methods that can be used.
On the campaign trail, Trump spoke emphatically about toughening the U.S. approach to fighting the Islamic State group. He said he would authorize waterboarding and a "hell of a lot worse." Trump has said that he believes torture works, but also has said that he will consult with Mattis and Pompeo before authorizing any new policy.
Pompeo said in his confirmation hearing that he would abide by all laws. But he also said he'd consult with CIA and other government experts on whether current restrictions were an "impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country or whether any rewrite of the Army Field Manual is needed." Mattis has advised Trump that he doesn't think torture is an effective interrogation tactic.
The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Dianne Feinstein of California and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
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