McCain to Trump: ‘We are not bringing back torture’

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain bluntly warned the White House on Wednesday that “we are not bringing back torture” amid news reports that President Trump is preparing an executive order that might do just that.

The New York Times and the Associated Press reported earlier in the day that the Trump administration was readying a three-page order that could reopen CIA “black site” prisons overseas — secret facilities where suspected terrorists were held, tortured, and sometimes killed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Former President Barack Obama shut them down and ordered an end to torture, but resisted what he described as “sanctimonious” calls to prosecute or punish officials involved. The new order would open a review into whether the U.S. should reopen black sites.

McCain, who was tortured extensively after being shot down over what was then North Vietnam, has led the fight in Congress against abusive interrogation practices.

“The president can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America,” he said in a statement issued by his office in response to the reports.

McCain noted that bipartisan legislation signed in 2015 limits U.S. officials to interrogation techniques listed in the Army Field Manual, which would prohibit tactics such as waterboarding, in which a prisoner is subjected to controlled drowning.

The news emerged two days after the Senate confirmed Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas as CIA director. During his confirmation hearing, Pompeo promised he would “absolutely not” obey a presidential order to resume using methods that meet international definitions of torture. But in late 2014, Pompeo had said CIA interrogators who used such tactics “are not torturers, they are patriots.” And in written responses to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pompeo left the door open to revising interrogation rules in the future.

President Trump and Sen. John McCain. (Photos: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, Cliff Owen/AP)
President Trump and Sen. John McCain. (Photos: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, Cliff Owen/AP)

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to bring back waterboarding and techniques he described as a “hell of a lot worse.” He also declared that “torture works,” and even “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.”

In his statement, McCain said that Pompeo had promised “during both our personal conversations and his confirmation hearing” that “he will comply with the law that applies the Army Field Manual’s interrogation requirements to all U.S. agencies, including the CIA,” while Defense Secretary James Mattis said military interrogators would stick to the field manual.

“I am confident these leaders will be true to their word,” McCain said.

During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly dismissed the three-page document, which the Times published in full, as “not a White House document.” But he did not say the Trump administration opposed its contents. Executive orders frequently begin as drafts at federal agencies, and only become formal “White House documents” later in the process.

In an interview set to air Wednesday night, Trump said that torture works and that “we have to fight fire with fire,” according to the Associated Press.

The wire service reported that Trump told ABC News he would talk to Mattis and Pompeo about their legal options in the fight against terrorism. He was further quoted saying that radical groups “chop off the citizens’ or anybody’s heads in the Middle East, because they’re Christian or Muslim or anything else.”

Trump added, “We have that and we’re not allowed to do anything. We’re not playing on an even field.”