Donald Trump is running to be America’s next top torture president. And it’s making U.S. intelligence officials sick.
Three U.S. intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that Trump’s threats to use torture, in the wake of the deadly terror attacks in Brussels, were alarming. The officials said they heard echoes in Trump’s most recent comments of his earlier promises to bring back interrogation techniques that he thinks are more severe than waterboarding or to kill the families of terrorists, actions that have been derided by conservative and liberal experts as war crimes.
“The fact that he tosses around torture so much should scare people,” said one U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He has only slightly walked it back, saying he realizes it is illegal now, so he will just change the laws to allow him to do it.”
The Republican presidential frontrunner and his main rival, Ted Cruz, both mused publicly after the Brussels attacks about how they would fight ISIS by transforming the United States into something more closely resembling a police state. For his part, Trump—who previously proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in response to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks last year—called for the U.S. government and its intelligence apparatus to start torturing people again.
“Frankly, the waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we changed the laws or had the laws, waterboarding would be fine,” the real estate mogul said on the Today show on Tuesday, referencing the practice President Obama banned in 2009. “I would do a lot more than waterboarding. You have to get the information from these people.”
Later that day on CNN, Trump argued that if only authorities had tortured Salah Abdeslam, a suspect in November’s Paris attacks, which killed 130, he would have talked “a lot faster.”
“If he would’ve talked you might not have had the blow up—all these people dead and all these people wounded because he probably knew about it,” Trump said. “We have to be smart. I mean, it’s hard to believe. We can’t waterboard—listen, nothing’s nice about it, but it’s your minimal form of torture.”
The U.S. intelligence official dismissed as misguided Trump’s claims that torture would have yielded useful information about the terrorist attacks or could be a deterrent to future threats.
“Maybe we should have built a wall on the Syrian border?” he told The Daily Beast, drawing an analogy to Trump’s much-derided proposal to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico in order to keep out criminals, drugs, and undocumented immigrants.
Another U.S. official said Trump’s recent interview with The Washington Post editorial board had revealed the candidate’s profound lack of understanding about U.S. foreign policy and national security issues. The candidate’s comments on torture only served to highlight his ignorance, the official argued, because investigators were obtaining information from Abdeslam without using physical violence.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Trump’s statements “quite simply, appalling and dangerous to our national security.”
“Torture is immoral and illegal,” the congressman continued. “It is also a great way to get people to say anything to make the pain stop, and send authorities chasing false leads. Comments by Donald Trump espousing the virtues of torture are spoken by a person with no national security experience and who obviously knows little about how to obtain reliable and accurate intelligence.”
The 2016 GOP frontrunner previously vowed to revive Bush-era interrogation methods, and then some. He said on a Republican debate stage that as president he would authorize “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding, and he routinely assures his supporters at his campaign rallies that his administration would be staunchly pro-torture.
“Ignoring if you can the immoral aspects of torture, if you do torture someone, you get nothing of value from them,” a former senior CIA operations officer told The Daily Beast. “You get what they think you want. And if you take that information as gospel you are a fool.”
Late last year, Trump told supporters in Columbus, Ohio, that “you bet your ass” he would bring back waterboarding, and that even “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.”
Trump’s past comments on torture have not gone unnoticed by former intelligence officials. Last month, former CIA director Michael Hayden told NBC News that if a President Trump truly wished to waterboard detainees, he would have to “bring [his] own damn bucket.”
John Rizzo, a top lawyer at the CIA during the time the agency employed so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, argued that intelligence officials under a Trump presidency would rather resign than follow orders to beat or waterboard suspected terrorists.
“I pity the poor S.O.B. who is President Trump’s CIA director and gets the order to do interrogation techniques ‘worse’ than waterboarding,” Rizzo told Newsweek. “Not to mention the CIA general counsel or Justice Department attorney general who has the legal issue dropped in his or her lap.”
If there were to be an exodus from the CIA as a result of a torture-happy Trump White House, those officials and spies likely would not stand alone. A number of Pentagon officers are actively contemplating what they would do should Trump become their commander in chief—and more often than not, they are leaning toward jumping ship.
“This is not the country I joined to defend,” one commander told The Daily Beast.
“I am turning in my papers,” one promised.
“I’m moving to a farm,” another said.
President Trump may indeed have to bring along his own damn bucket—and his own damn Army, Navy, intelligence agencies, and Defense Department.