The American deep state—influential career executives in the national security community—has started to push back on President Donald Trump on a number of issues, including immigration, U.S.–Russia policy, and counterterrorism operations. One of the most important may be detention and interrogation, where career military and intelligence officials rejected a draft executive order that would have resurrected the torture regime that existed immediately after 9/11, reflecting campaign promises by President Trump to bring waterboarding (and “much worse”) back into America’s interrogation arsenal.
That they did so should not surprise anyone who has followed the issue over the past decade. Why Trump’s draft order got such a rude welcome, however, deserves attention because it illustrates important changes since 9/11 in U.S. counterterrorism policy and practice. Career professionals in the Defense Department, the CIA, and elsewhere don’t want torture because it doesn’t work, corrodes their integrity, makes it harder to work with allies, and carries enormous risk for strategic blowback. The value of human intelligence has also diminished in relative terms as other American intelligence tools have improved, so there is less incentive for intelligence agencies to want torture in their kits.
This story begins with the detention and interrogation policy that President Trump’s draft order sought to resurrect. Two of President Barack Obama’s three orders relating to torture were to be revoked, and a George W. Bush administration order from 2007 was to be reinstated. The order directed Defense Secretary James Mattis to keep Guantanamo Bay open and use it not just for existing detainees but new ones, too. Trump’s order also directed the military to review its interrogation manual to determine whether it needed more enhanced interrogation tools. And, most notably, the order asked the CIA to consider restarting its “black sites” program for retention, detention, and interrogation of terror suspects, which was shut down by President Bush in late 2006.
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