The former senior CIA officer who championed waterboarding hopes President-elect Donald Trump will bring back harsh interrogation methods—and bring the CIA back into the business of interrogating terrorist suspects.
“We have to be able to capture terrorists. We have to be able to interrogate them. We don’t do that anymore,” said Jose Rodriguez, who led the CIA’s clandestine service during the Bush administration.
A Trump supporter, Rodriguez said he didn’t want to lead the CIA, though he has been named as a possible pick. But he does want to bring back some form of now-illegal interrogation measures, like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other so-called “enhanced interrogation methods” approved by the Bush White House to question terrorist suspects in the wake of the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11.
Then Rodriguez would move beyond those controversial techniques, which President Obama has called “torture.”
“Enhanced interrogation techniques are well known to the enemy and we would have to come up with something else,” he told The Daily Beast, though he declined to describe what that might entail. He also wants the Trump administration to block current cases against CIA employees who carried out the program.
Trump said during the presidential campaign he would bring back waterboarding “and much worse.”
"These savages are chopping off heads, drowning people. This is medieval times and then we can't do waterboarding?” Trump said a week before the election.
Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks emailed Monday that she had “nothing to add” on how the president-elect might make good on that campaign promise, which likely require introducing new legislation to change U.S. law.
Congress banned the Bush-era methods back in 2005, and Obama issued an executive order when he took office in 2009 that commanded all government employees to use only interrogation techniques set out in the U.S. Army Field Manual.
“We tortured some folks,” after 9/11, Obama told reporters shortly after taking office. “We did some things that were contrary to our values.”
Last year, the U.S. Senate passed a torture ban making Obama’s order law.
“The single most critical step that he could take unilaterally would be to simply repeal [Obama’s executive order on the subject] in order to revert back to the coercive practices instituted in the early days of the Bush administration,” said Georgetown University security studies expert Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault in an email to The Daily Beast.
“A repeal of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act and the 2015 amendment—or a replacement of those laws—would require the compliance of the Senate, specifically the 60 votes required to overcome a possible Democratic filibuster,” she added, which she wrote about in the nonpartisan Lawfare blog.
Such a move would face international censure from bodies like the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“The prohibition of torture, and all forms of ill-treatment, is absolute — everywhere and at all times,” ICRC spokeswoman Anna Nelson said Monday. “It is strictly forbidden by international human rights law, U.S. jurisprudence, the United Nations Convention against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions... Torture is morally reprehensible and it should be permanently repudiated by all nations.”
Former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden— an outspoken “NeverTrump’er”—expressed doubt the CIA would welcome a return to the interrogation mission.
"This is not the agency disowning it’s past because it truly believes that these techniques worked and saved lives,” Hayden emailed The Daily Beast. “Rather, it is based on the sense of betrayal at the agency for having followed previous direction in good faith, and then having that overturned by a subsequent administration.”
Rodriguez said that sense of betrayal is part of why he has no desire to return to Washington.
“I would not want to go back to government even as director of CIA,” Rodriguez said Sunday. “I served my country for 31 years, and the last six-and-a-half were especially challenging. I think I fulfilled my duty, I did my part.”
But he does want Trump to unleash the CIA again to interrogate terrorist suspects, and grant them new powers beyond what the military is allowed to do.
“The Army Field Manual…is totally inadequate for a premier agency like the CIA to interrogate high level terrorists,” said Rodriguez, calling interrogation the easiest and best way to gain intelligence.
A landmark Senate Intelligence Committee report into the program detailed stomach-churning methods such as instances of force feeding hunger-striking detainees rectally, and concluded that no actionable intelligence was produced by the methods.
“They worked. Of course they worked,” Rodriguez countered. “That Senate report is a farce. It’s a lie, it’s like Obamacare, it’s not true.”
Since then, CIA officers and contractors who carried out the practice have faced lawsuits – one of them still ongoing, which Rodriguez would like to see the new Trump administration shut down.
Rodriguez himself was investigated by the Justice Department for three years for destroying video tapes of CIA interrogations of two al Qaeda detainees, but not prosecuted. Rodriguez said the “ugly visuals” of the interrogations, if ever made public, would endanger American lives.
Now Rodriguez and then-CIA General Counsel John Rizzo both face questioning under oath as part of the ACLU’s civil suit against two CIA contract psychologists who helped design the program. A judge has ordered the trial to go ahead next June.
Rodriguez said he hopes the Trump administration would use the secrecy defense that the Obama administration used to block earlier cases against CIA employees who carried out such interrogations – though he said they declined to block later cases.
“This administration could end it if they wanted to but they don’t because politically and ideologically, they…agree,” that the employees should be prosecuted, he said. And Obama helped the ACLU’s case by publishing more information about it.
“They released the legal justification for the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, thereby making it public, basically giving up a blueprint of what it’s all about,” Rodriguez added.
ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi said that having all that information now public is the real reason the Obama administration can’t use a secrecy defense to block further disclosures, especially thanks to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s lengthy report into the subject.
“The government cannot hide behind secrecy when the information needed to litigate the case is already public,” Shamsi told The Daily Beast on Sunday. “Neither this administration nor any other would have a legitimate legal basis in seeking to block this lawsuit from going forward.”
Shamsi said the ACLU stands ready to fight any moves to reinstate harsh interrogation methods of any type.
“Torture is always unlawful and if the Trump administration seeks to return to it, we stand ready to challenge a return to torture, which has deeply damaged both victims as well as the United States’ national security and standing in the international community,” she said.
Updated, 11/14/176: This article has been corrected to reflect that former CIA general counsel John Rizzo did not repudiate the interrogation program.