Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Just to Be Clear: The Official Position of the United States on Whether Waterboarding is Torture

Marty Lederman

Notwithstanding what you might have heard in the most recent Republican presidential debate, it's really not a very difficult or contestable question. But just to be absolutely clear about it, here is the official, unequivocal view of the United States, from the President's news conference yesterday:
Q Last night at the Republican debate, some of the hopefuls -- they hope to get your job -- they defended the practice of waterboarding, which is a practice that you banned in 2009. Herman Cain said, “I don’t see that as torture.” Michelle Bachmann said that it’s “very effective.” So I’m wondering if you think that they’re uninformed, out of touch, or irresponsible?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s a multiple-choice question, isn’t it? (Laughter.) Let me just say this: They’re wrong. Waterboarding is torture. It’s contrary to America’s traditions. It’s contrary to our ideals. That’s not who we are. That’s not how we operate. We don’t need it in order to prosecute the war on terrorism. And we did the right thing by ending that practice. If we want to lead around the world, part of our leadership is setting a good example. And anybody who has actually read about and understands the practice of waterboarding would say that that is torture. And that's not something we do -- period.

This isn't a new view. After only 100 days in office, President Obama had this to say on the matter:
Q You've said in the past that waterboarding, in your opinion, is torture. Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?

THE PRESIDENT: What I've said -- and I will repeat -- is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don't think that's just my opinion; that's the opinion of many who've examined the topic. And that's why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do -- not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are. I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day, talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, we don't torture -- when the entire British -- all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time that corrodes what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country. And so I strongly believe that the steps that we've taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term, and make us safer over the long term, because it will put us in a position where we can still get information -- in some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world, is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy. At the same time, it takes away a critical recruitment tool that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have used to try to demonize the United States and justify the killing of civilians. And it makes us -- it puts us in a much stronger position to work with our allies in the kind of international coordinated intelligence activity that can shut down these networks. So this is a decision that I am very comfortable with. And I think the American people over time will recognize that it is better for us to stick to who we are, even when we're taking on a unscrupulous enemy. . . . I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that the -- whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.

Q Thank you, sir. Let me follow up, if I may, on Jake's question. Did you read the documents recently referred to by former Vice President Cheney and others, saying that the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques not only protected the nation, but saved lives? And if part of the United States were under imminent threat, could you envision yourself ever authorizing the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques?

THE PRESIDENT: I have read the documents. Now, they haven't been officially declassified and released, and so I don't want to go into the details of them. But here's what I can tell you -- that the public reports and the public justifications for these techniques -- which is that we got information from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques -- doesn't answer the core question, which is: Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques? And it doesn't answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques? So when I made the decision to release these [OLC] memos and when I made the decision to bar these practices, this was based on consultation with my entire national security team, and based on my understanding that ultimately I will be judged as Commander-in-Chief on how safe I'm keeping the American people. That's the responsibility I wake up with and it's the responsibility I go to sleep with. And so I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe, but I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking shortcuts that undermine who we are. And there have been no circumstances during the course of this first hundred days in which I have seen information that would make me second-guess the decision that I've made.

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