In February, Donald Trump vowed to make “enhanced interrogation techniques”—like sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”—part of his then-hypothetical administration’s approach to fighting terrorism. He also promised to target the families of suspected terrorists. His pledges, sometimes reversed, then reinforced, all seemed like instances of his fiery, base-riling campaign rhetoric.
Trump faces significant hurdles to reviving George W. Bush-era interrogation practices amounting to torture; those hurdles include the Geneva Conventions and 2005’s Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibited some of the worst abuses. But other restrictions, including a 2009 executive order signed by President Barack Obama barring the CIA from operating its own detention facilities and banning some interrogation techniques, could be quickly overturned by Trump.
Now that Trump has won the presidency, the prospect of that rhetoric becoming policy—or, at the very least, a viable possibility—has revived a debate that seemed settled when Obama repudiated the policies of his predecessor with the declaration that “we don’t torture.”
“We’re no longer saying that the United States does not torture, we’re saying the United States should torture,” Alka Pradhan, a lawyer for Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions, told BuzzFeed. In Washington, rising Republican stars like Oklahoma Senator Tom Cotton believe Trump is prepared decide whether to bring torture back. “If experienced intelligence professionals come to the president of the United States and say, ‘We think this terrorist has critical information and we need to obtain it, and this is the only way we can obtain it,’ that’s a tough call,” Cotton, who does not believe that waterboarding is torture, told Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday. “Donald Trump’s a pretty tough guy, and I think he’s ready to make those tough calls.”