WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is readying a sweeping review of how America conducts the war on terror, including possible resumption of banned interrogation methods and reopening CIA-run “black site” prisons outside the United States, according to a draft executive order obtained by The Associated Press.
The order would also instruct the Pentagon to send newly captured “enemy combatants” to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, instead of closing the detention facility as President Barack Obama had wanted. Altogether, the possible changes could mark a dramatic return to how the Bush administration waged its campaign against al-Qaida and other extremist groups.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer, questioned about the draft order, said it was “not a White House document,” but he would say no more about it.
The three-page document instructs top national security officers to “recommend to the president whether to reinitiate a program of interrogation of high-value alien terrorists to be operated outside the United States and whether such program should include the use of detention facilities operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.”
The document says U.S. laws should be obeyed at all times and explicitly rejects “torture.”
But its reconsideration of the harsh techniques banned by Obama and Congress is sure to inflame passions in the United States and abroad. While some former government leaders insist the program was effective in obtaining critical intelligence, many others blame it for some of the worst abuses in the war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, and claim it proved entirely ineffective.
Tactics in the early years of the CIA program included sleep deprivation, slapping and slamming detainees against walls, confinement in small boxes, prolonged isolation and even death threats to those being interrogated. Three detainees faced the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding. Many developed psychological problems.
The AP obtained the draft order from a U.S. official, who said it had been distributed by the White House for consultations before Trump signs it. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
“It is not a White House document,” said Spicer, Trump’s press secretary. “I have no idea where it came from.”
The Pentagon didn’t immediately comment, but reports of the upcoming order quickly sparked significant alarm among Republicans as well as Democrats.
“The president can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law,” said Republican Sen. John McCain, who was beaten when he was held captive during the Vietnam War. “We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America.”
On the campaign trail, Trump spoke emphatically about toughening the U.S. approach to fighting the Islamic State group. He said he would authorize waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse.” Since becoming president, however, he has tempered those calls, noting his Defense Secretary James Mattis’ advice that torture is ineffective.
Mike Pompeo, Trump’s CIA director, said in his confirmation hearing that he would abide by all laws. But he also said he’d consult with CIA and other government experts on whether current restrictions were an “impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country or whether any rewrite of the Army Field Manual is needed.”
Specifically, Trump’s draft order calls for reinstating an executive order — “to the extent permitted” by current law — that President George W. Bush signed in 2007 and Obama later revoked as one of his first actions.
The Bush order provides only broad guidelines about permissible methods for questioning high-value terror suspects, with a vaguely worded ban on cruel and inhuman treatment. Some specific practices, such as sexual abuse, were explicitly banned, but the full rules were classified.
While Obama tightened interrogation rules, Trump’s draft would reverse a pair of the former president’s executive orders. One called for closing Guantanamo Bay. The other ordered the CIA to shut any detention facility it operated and prohibited the U.S. from using any interrogation technique not listed in the Army Field Manual, demanding treatment in compliance with the Geneva Conventions, including timely access for the International Red Cross to all detainees.
Any changes would face steep legal and legislative hurdles.
McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s chairman, may be the most formidable opponent in Congress, but he is not the only one. Other Republican lawmakers could object to the Bush-era policies that proved highly divisive within the intelligence community and strained ties with key U.S. allies overseas. Democrats are sure to oppose almost anything the review proposes.
“It is wrong and I hope he will rethink it,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said.
On Guantanamo, the draft order says detention facilities “are a critical tool in the fight against international jihadist terrorist groups who are engaged in armed conflict with the United States, its allies and its coalition partners.” About 40 detainees remain in Guantanamo.
The document says “over 30 percent of detainees” who’ve been released have returned to armed conflict, with at least a dozen conducting attacks “against U.S. personnel or allied forces in Afghanistan.” Six Americans, including a civilian aid worker, died as a result of those attacks.
U.S. intelligence agencies say 17.6 percent of detainees released from Guantanamo are confirmed to have re-engaged in conflict. An additional 12.4 percent are “suspected” of re-engaging.
Trump pledged on the campaign trail to “load it up with some bad dudes,” and Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican nominated for attorney general, said at his confirmation hearing that it has functioned “marvelously” as a jail for militants.
It’s unclear who the new detainees would be. As American ground troops have stepped back this decade from the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, captures of high-level detainees have become much rarer, and Obama tried to direct them through the U.S. justice system.
AP writer Bradley Klapper and Eric Tucker in Washington and Paisley Dodds in London contributed to this report.