Are waterboarding, ‘black site’ CIA prisons back on the table?

President Trump speaks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.
President Trump speaks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. TNS

Are the use of torture and covert international holding cells for suspected terrorists known as “black sites” back on the table?

A three-page draft of a proposed executive order that would pave the way to restarting interrogation programs using methods widely condemned as torture was circulating in Washington on Wednesday. Its existence was reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post, and drew immediate bipartisan opposition.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer denied that the order was a “White House document” and said he doubted that President Donald Trump had seen it.

The impact of Trump’s signing such an order was disputed.

“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,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Trump tweeted late Tuesday that Wednesday would be a “big day” on “national security” but it wasn’t immediately clear whether Trump would make announcements related to how U.S. forces treat suspected terrorists abroad.

Trump changed tone on the use of torture during his campaign, announcing at rallies in early 2016 adamant support for techniques like waterboarding – which involves dunking suspects in water in simulated drowning – saying such techniques are effective.

“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work. Torture works,” Trump said in Bluffton, South Carolina, last Feb. 17. “Half these guys (say): ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works.”

But after a November meeting with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, whom Trump has installed as secretary of defense, Trump said Mattis had swayed his thinking.

“He said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’ ” Trump told editors and reporters at The New York Times on Nov. 23, adding that Mattis had suggested it was better to build trust and reward suspects who cooperated. “ ‘Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better,’ ” Trump quoted Mattis as telling him.

Trump said in that meeting that Mattis’ view had affected him but added: “I’m not saying it changed my mind.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is ranking member of the House intelligence panel, said a return to the use of torture and “black site” prisons, as well as the continued operation of the detention center for terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would be a “black eye” for the United States and would harm relations with allies opposed to such practices.

Schiff also said the use of torture debilitated U.S. personnel who employed it.

“It’s corrosive to the morale of the (intelligence community) should we ever get back into the business of enhanced interrogation techniques,” Schiff said at a forum at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

A former chief of staff to then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, Jeremy Bash, said few operatives supported a return to the use of torture.

“We haven’t engaged in waterboarding since 2004, and somehow we managed to keep our country safe,” Bash said at the forum. “I’ve picked up precisely zero appetite for doing it again.”

Congress codified a prohibition on torture in a 2015 defense spending law that limited interrogation techniques to those included in the Army Field Manual, which proscribes methods involving “the use or threat of force.”

The CIA operated “black site” prisons at distinct periods from 2002 to 2008 in Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Afghanistan and Thailand but denied their existence.

The CIA declined to comment on the reports that such prisons were again on the table.

One intelligence insider who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the issue said subsequent divulging of the existence of black sites had embarrassed some of the nations that hosted them, making re-establishment of the practice difficult.

“You’d have to find a willing country to host one of these sites,” he said.

One advocate for adherence to rule of law said reinstituting coercive policies of the past would only diminish the possibility of prosecuting suspected terrorists.

“Anyone attempting to reinstate torture, to redefine detention authority or to use the military commissions more robustly has failed to learn the lesson of the past,” said Jay Connell, a criminal defense attorney representing an alleged 9/11 plotter, Ammar al Baluchi. “Torture makes criminal cases virtually impossible to prosecute. Torture and due process are mutually exclusive.”

Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald contributed to this article from Guantánamo Bay Naval Station.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4