The ability of future presidents—whether Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, or other politicians yet unknown—to employ torture as an American interrogation technique will be firmly and finally ended should a measure proposed Tuesday by Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein be accepted.
The legislation represents a bookend to more than a decade of debate over what the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which were brought to graphic light in December with the publication of a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee that detailed abuses committed during the years following the 9/11 attacks.
The new bipartisan legislation, attached to the annual defense policy bill that Congress considers, would ban the use of torture or cruel treatment by the military, the CIA—in fact all arms of the U.S. government.
“We need specific [laws] from the Congress so that we don’t again get an executive who says, ‘Let’s take off the gloves and torture these people,’ which is what happened before,” retired three-star general Ed Soyster, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told The Daily Beast. “Previously when we had a problem, the laws were not there, and the laws that did exist were misinterpreted to allow the kind of atrocities that we committed.”
If adopted, any future interrogation involving the U.S. government would have to follow the standards outlined in the Army Field Manual, which requires that detainees be treated “humanely” and prohibits the use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
The Army Field Manual is “based on decades of scientifically founded, empirically established methods that succeed—and affirm and abide by our laws,” said Glenn Carle, a career CIA field officer with direct experience interrogating a top al Qaeda operative in the years after 9/11. Carle was on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to support the McCain-Feinstein effort.
Within the Republican Party, some politicians still endorse waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques as effective means of interrogations. Just last month, former Texas governor Rick Perry said he would be willing to use such techniques if elected president.
In one presidential debate during the last election cycle, candidates Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain all expressed support for waterboarding. Rick Santorum also raised eyebrows when he claimed that McCain, who had personally endured torture, didn’t understand how the enhanced interrogation techniques worked.
The Senate “torture report” released in December outlined some of the abuses that occurred in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The report described forced rectal feeding, nonstop interrogation, a detainee forced to stand on broken legs, a “well worn” waterboard used by the CIA, the near-drowning of one detainee, and a notorious “black site” for detainees in Afghanistan called the Salt Pit.
McCain, himself a victim of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, tried to prohibit the use of torture in 2005, but his legislation covered only military interrogation. The Obama administration issued an executive order prohibiting the use of torture in the early days of President Obama’s first term, but such an order could be easily revoked by future administrations.
“An executive order is only in place until there’s another executive order,” Carle said. “It could be undone by the next president. You want to literally codify this. You want the government and the practices of the United States to be based on laws, not the whim and will of men.”
The McCain-Feinstein amendment on torture would require a regular review of the Army Field Manual to ensure legal compliance and to ensure that techniques in the manual are in line with “current, evidence-based, best practices for interrogation.” In addition, the measure would compel the U.S. government notify and provide access to the Red Cross whenever the United States detains an individual in an armed conflict.