Donald J. Trump’s Presidency be


“How do you catch an elephant?  You catch a mouse and keep beating it until it admits it’s really an elephant.” ~ South African proverb

The most pressing question in the torture stakes will be its revival as a state policy under a Trump administration.  Donald J. Trump’s approach to such matters remains that of entertainer-in-chief rather than cold politician: he wishes to get results more in tune with emotional response rather than tangible effect.  Such a disposition presents a range of dangers to both the US Republic and perhaps everybody else.

What has mattered in the debate is the sanitising of torture as a principle.  Debates continue to take the teeth out of interrogative practices that unquestionably amount to torture. Despite being prohibited across a range of international and domestic instruments, States tend to slip into habits of brutal extraction, bickering merely over degree. In situations of emergency, those habits become crudely repetitive: if information is to be sought that might be useful to security, it will be sought, however brutal the method.

Trump’s first interview as President on ABC News admitted that he would defer to the defence secretary, James Mattis, and CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, over the issue, but felt that such techniques as water boarding had a role: “absolutely I feel it works.”

As to whether Trump knows it works is quite something else.  Such debates tend to be heavy with emotional suggestion. Evidence of its value is scanty, though the overwhelming sense from interrogators is that truth has a curious habit of slipping away when the subject is worn by the effects of a cruel torture regime. The quality of information suffers as a result, as the confessor loses all perspective. The caught mouse, in other words, shall eventually have to admit it is an elephant.

This point has been admitted by the US Senate Intelligence and Security Select Committee, which scrutinised the record of torture employed during the Bush administration, not finding it “an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.”

The crux of Trump’s embrace for firmer, harsh techniques against such groups as Islamic State hinges on the idea of retaliatory vengeance. These terrorist groups, he explained, “chop off the citizens’ or anybody’s heads in the Middle East, because they’re Christian or Muslim or anything else… we have that and we’re not allowed to do anything. We’re not playing on an even field.”

Rather than embracing a higher ground of ethical purity with pragmatic effect, he prefers to descend into the pits of hell, charging away towards a blood ready equivalence.  “When ISIS is doing things that nobody has ever heard of since medieval time, would I feel strongly about waterboarding?  As far as I’m concerned we have to fight fire with fire.”

Those with portfolios against the practice of torture have gone back to the definitional board, hoping Trump will listen to their counsel.  “Without any doubt,” claims Nils Melzer, UN special rapporteur on torture, “waterboarding amounts to torture.”  For the US to abandon its opposition to it, other states would “get back into the torture business.”[1]

Such a “business” is also bound to be problematic for other intelligence services that rely on the US in security partnerships. What to do with information, however invaluable, actually tainted by the stain of torture?

Protocols for several countries are in place for officials to absent themselves where torture is taking place, a long standing hypocrisy in the intelligence game. To then make use of that material potentially places such countries as Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada at risk of violating international law. That, of course, has not prevented them from doing so before.

Despite suggesting he would defer to Mattis and Pompeo, neither seemed to realise Trump’s moves on the subject of what he would do next. Their master is proving not only enigmatic but irritatingly slippery.  Politico went so far as to claim that they had been “blindsided” by a draft order requesting the CIA to revisit previous interrogation techniques.[2]

White House press secretary Sean Spicer was a picture of confusion, claiming he had “no idea where it came from” and that it was “not a White House document.” It perhaps stands to reason, notably in the case of Mattis, who is on record advocating beer and cigarettes as more appropriate forms of inducement in the interrogation room.

Others question the effect any such Presidential direction would have. Senator John McCain is resigned to a president delusional about the effect of any executive order bringing back torture practices.  “The president can sign whatever executive order he likes but the law is the law.  We are not bringing back torture in the USA.”[3]  Such confusion might give hope to anti-torture advocates, though Trump seems determined to stir the viciousness of the interrogating patriot, right or wrong.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: