Why the CIA won't waterboard, even if ordered by the president

CIA Director John Brennan says his agency won't employ waterboarding, even if a future President Trump or President Cruz were to pursue 'enhanced interrogation.' 

Yuri Gripas/Reuters/File
CIA Director John Brennan listens to remarks by President Obama at the 10th anniversary of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on April 24, 2015 in McLean, Va.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) will never employ waterboarding again, even at the request of a future president, director John Brennan told NBC News in an interview Sunday.

But Mr. Brennan is not referring to President Obama, who banned the practice with an executive order shortly after becoming president in 2009. The CIA director is responding to several off-handed remarks made by Republican presidential contenders Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

"I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I've heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure," Brennan told NBC's Richard Engel.

Both presidential candidates have said they will do whatever they believe is necessary to protect the United States from terrorist attacks – even if that requires torture techniques like waterboarding. Front-runner Mr. Trump has promised to lift Obama's waterboarding ban if he becomes president and make America's torturing techniques "much worse."

While Sen. Cruz has held a less aggressive  view of torture than Trump and former presidential opponents Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio, he says waterboarding should not be categorized as torture. Instead, Cruz defines waterboarding as a form of "enhanced interrogation," and has said that, as president, "I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe."

But when asked specifically about waterboarding, in light of Trump and Cruz's confident opinions, Brennan makes his position clear: "Absolutely, I would not agree to having any CIA officer carrying out waterboarding again."

So who would win a waterboarding showdown: the CIA director or a future President Trump or Cruz? 

In response to Trump's proposed torture techniques, such as waterboarding and killing the families of suspected terrorists, former director of the National Security Agency and CIA Michael Hayden told HBO's Bill Maher in February that he suspects the military would refuse to enforce the president's orders. 

"Let me give you a punchline: If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act," Mr. Hayden told Mr. Maher. "You are required not to follow an unlawful order. That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict."

Before Mr. Obama banned enhanced interrogation techniques in January 2009, torture through waterboarding and similar practices were legal under the Bush administration, which employed them after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"Don't tell me it doesn't work – torture works," Trump said at a campaign rally in South Carolina. "Okay folks? Torture – you know, half these guys [say]: 'Torture doesn't work.' Believe me, it works."

But high-level current and former US security officials overwhelmingly say that torture, in fact, does not work, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported. 

"It's incumbent upon our political leaders to not engage in the kind of political rhetoric that drives a jittery population toward policies like torture…that only play right into the hands of our enemies," says Ken Gude, a senior fellow with the national security team at the Center for American Progress.

But public opinion on torture flows in the opposite direction from experts: 82 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats favor torture. 

Brennan's full interview with Mr. Engel will air Monday evening on NBC News. 

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