Will Mitt Romney Tie People Up and Force Water Into Their Lungs?

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The most urgent job for reporters covering his campaign: Get him on record about torture, and avoid euphemism while doing it.

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In a must-read New York Times article, Charlie Savage uncovers the clearest evidence yet that a Romney Administration might resume torturing prisoners in American custody in Bush-like fashion. "In one of his first acts, President Obama issued an executive order restricting interrogators to a list of non-abusive tactics approved in the Army Field Manual. Even as he embraced a hawkish approach to other counterterrorism issues -- like drone strikes, military commissions, indefinite detention and the Patriot Act -- Mr. Obama has stuck to that strict no-torture policy," Savage writes. "By contrast, Mr. Romney's advisers have privately urged him to 'rescind and replace President Obama's executive order' and permit secret 'enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives,' according to an internal Romney campaign memorandum."

The article points out that "the memo is a policy proposal drafted by Mr. Romney's advisers in September 2011 -- not a final decision by him." It is therefore imperative to get that final decision from Romney, if he is capable of such a thing -- and to eschew torture euphemisms while doing it.

Don't ask Romney if he will permit "enhanced interrogation" or even "waterboarding." Ask him,"Would your administration take prisoners, strap them to a board, obstruct their nasal cavity, and force water down their throats till it fills their lungs and terrifies them with the sensation of drowning?"

Expect the dodge Romney used when asked about waterboarding in 2007: 

I do not believe as a presidential candidate it is wise for us to describe precisely what techniques we will use when interrogating people.

Here's how the questioner can retort: "I'm not asking precisely what techniques you would use, Governor Romney, the question is about what techniques you definitely wouldn't use. So are you saying it is possible you'd order that water be forced down the throat of a bound man until it filled his lungs? Or do you think that crosses the line into torture, which you've previously said that you won't countenance?"

If he again says, "I do not believe as a presidential candidate it is wise for us to describe precisely what techniques we will use when interrogating people," it's crucial to keep pestering him. I'd suggest, "Governor Romney, surely you don't mind reassuring us that it would be wrong to drill holes in the testicles of a prisoner, or to soak his hair in gasoline and light it on fire. That is right, isn't it?"

(Pause.)

"So why can't you tell us whether you think it's okay to force water down their throats and into their lungs? Isn't it meaningless to tell us you're against torture if you won't explain how you define it?"

What do you think, Jim Lehrer, moderator of debate No. 1?

Odds are long against anyone adopting my script, of course, but I do hope describing the act rather than labeling it catches on. It really forces everyone to confront the reality of what's being done. For those who want to learn more about that reality, two pieces of recommended reading: the essay Christopher Hitchens wrote after volunteering to be "waterboarded," and this chilling story from an American who went through training in how to survive the techniques Bush used.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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