WASHINGTON (CN) – Torture works, President Donald Trump said Wednesday, the same day press secretary Sean Spicer denied that the White House was working on a draft executive order to reinstate the CIA interrogation program.
News of the remarks caught the eye of John Kiriakou, the first CIA analyst to publicly confirm that the intelligence agency used waterboarding, which he characterized as torture.
Kiriakou was prosecuted for disclosing classified information to journalists after he blew the whistle on the torture program in 2007. He spoke to Courthouse News on Thursday about the leaked executive order, the illegality of torture and the state of morale at the agency.
What are your impressions of the draft memo?
“Much of it frankly is illegal. I’ve argued that the torture program was illegal from the very start for a couple of reasons. First, we have a law in this country called the Federal Torture Act that specifically prohibits the kind of techniques that were used by the Bush administration. We’re also signatories to the International Convention Against Torture. Indeed we were one of the drafters – the primary drafters – of the International Convention Against Torture.
“With that said, the Bush administration, the W. Bush administration, enacted a torture program. In response to that, of course, Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein sponsored the McCain-Feinstein Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in 2015, which passed, and was signed into law. That prohibits the use of any techniques that are not delineated in the Army Field Manual.
“So what Donald Trump is doing, what he’s advocating, is just simply illegal. It would take an act of Congress to reinstitute the torture program that he wants. Now besides that, what he’s advocating is morally and ethically reprehensible. Even the American Psychological Association, the APA, which is the largest association of licensed psychologists in the world, has come out and said that it’s immoral and unethical and it simply doesn’t work.
“So Trump can tweet all he wants that torture works. It doesn’t work. It’s been conclusively proven that it doesn’t work. Besides that, whether or not it works is not even the issue.
[su_columnpostpullquote align=”left”]“It’s not an issue of whether or not it works. It’s an issue of whether or not it’s moral, ethical and legal. And it is not.” [/su_columnpostpullquote]
“Rape works, but we don’t rape or sodomize prisoners. Murder works, but we don’t murder them. My God, beating and sodomizing their children in front of them would work, but we don’t do that. So it’s not an issue of whether or not it works. It’s an issue of whether or not it’s moral, ethical and legal. And it is not.”
What do you make of Trump’s claim, in his interview with ABC News on Wednesday, that intelligence insiders have told him that torture works?
“The people that he’s talking to are the people who created the torture program. So of course they’re going to say it works because torture is their legacy. When people like George Tenet or Jose Rodriguez finally pass on, their obituaries are going to have these wonderful stories about the illustrious careers they had. But they’re also going to say that they were instrumental in the creation and in the implementation of a torture program. What they are doing, it seems to me, they are repeating this lie over and over and over again that torture works, in the hope that eventually the American people believe it.”
The draft executive order that surfaced yesterday talks about reviving the CIA black sites. Did that come as a shock?
[su_columnpostpullquote align=”right”]“I thought that he was telling us exactly the kind of presidency that he would lead, and so far in six short days that’s what we’ve got.”[/su_columnpostpullquote] “I’m not surprised, to tell you the truth. And I’m very sad to say that. But I made a conclusion early on in the Republican campaign that we ought to take Donald Trump at his word. I didn’t think that what he was saying was bravado. I thought that he was telling us exactly the kind of presidency that he would lead, and so far in six short days that’s what we’ve got.”
Is it a good thing that the memo leaked?
“It is. It is a good thing because we can have a national debate about this now. When George W. Bush created and implemented the torture program, it was all done in secret. So there was no national debate about torture.”
What are your thoughts about Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, specifically related to the issue of torture?
[su_columnpostpullquote align=”left”]“If it’s Pompeo’s advice, or the advice of people like Pompeo that Trump is relying on, I think we’re in for some trouble.”[/su_columnpostpullquote]“His domestic politics aside, he’s a Tea Party Republican. So I loathe his domestic politics but that’s irrelevant. So his domestic politics aside, Mike Pompeo’s real job is to protect the CIA workforce from Donald Trump. And if he can do that, I think he’ll be able to restore a high level of morale that we used to have in the CIA. With that said, Pompeo has come out and said that he’s a supporter of the torture program. So if it’s Pompeo’s advice, or the advice of people like Pompeo that Trump is relying on, I think we’re in for some trouble.”
Do you think the CIA will see many resignations if Pompeo brings back torture?
“We know from the Senate torture report that there were people inside the CIA, high-ranking people inside the CIA, not just in operations but also in the office of medical services, who objected strenuously to the torture program and specifically to the torture of Abu Zubaydah. We know that some people who were witness to that torture curtailed their assignment, which meant that they left that assignment and went back to headquarters. That’s a career-ending move. We also know that some officers resigned in protest.
“None of them went public. Which is fine.
“But we know that they objected and, when their objections were ignored, that they left. I could absolutely see that happening – more so this time because this debate has already taken place. Torture is illegal. That’s just the law of the land, whether Trump likes it or acknowledges it or not. Torture is banned in the United States. And if he orders CIA officers to torture prisoners, and if that order is reinforced by Director Pompeo, I think that most CIA officers would refuse the order. And I think that many of them would resign if they had to.”
President Trump’s feud with the intelligence community has been well publicized, but he went to CIA headquarters at Langley on Saturday and spoke about taking Iraq’s oil. What are your thoughts on that?
“There are very few war crimes that are as clearly delineated as stealing a country’s natural resources. I mean, it’s just black-and-white law. So here you have a president – who at the time had been president for a day – advocating a war crime. That was absolutely stunning to me.
[su_columnpostpullquote align=”right”]“Here you have a president – who at the time had been president for a day – advocating a war crime. That was absolutely stunning to me.”[/su_columnpostpullquote] “The speech was also stunning for a number of reasons. First of all, we know from CBS News now that the first three rows of people in that speech were Trump campaign volunteers that he brought with him to the CIA. So all that cheering that we heard – those were not CIA people. They were Trump partisans.
“Second, he spent most of the speech talking about himself. That was offensive to a lot of CIA people, and I’ve spoken to a lot since that speech.
“It was offensive because presidents come to the CIA all the time. At least once a year the president will come to the CIA, walk the halls – shake hands, high-fives, people clap – it’s a love fest.
“That wasn’t the case on Saturday with President Trump. He talked about himself. He talked about how he’s been wronged by the press. He talked about how illegal aliens stole the popular vote from him. He talked about everything except the CIA and the good work that the CIA does to keep the country safe. So that was offensive.
“Third, and this is really the most offensive thing, he gave that speech in front of the wall of honor. And that is sacred ground inside the CIA headquarters. Sacred ground. He used it for what was essentially a campaign stump speech and a riff on how he’s been screwed over the last year. That was just so, so wrong and so unappreciated. It’s something that I hope he would never do again.”
What is your assessment of the relationship between the president and the CIA at the moment, especially in the wake of Russian interference in the U.S. election?
“I think it’s quite bad and quite tenuous.
[su_columnpostpullquote align=”left”]“To be so publicly dismissed and disrespected by the president really sets a bad precedent for that administration. He’s biting that hand.”[/su_columnpostpullquote]“You know if there’s one thing about the CIA that I learned in 15 years there, it’s that the organization – as an organization among the rank-and-file – is really not at all political. Not at all. Nobody ever talks about politics. Nobody ever talks about whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican or Independent. It just never, ever comes up. Because it’s irrelevant. People only care about protecting the country.
“And so if the CIA says that the Russians had some kind of involvement in trying – I’m not saying they succeeded – but in trying to swing the election, that’s what the intelligence is telling them. And so to be so publicly dismissed and disrespected by the president really sets a bad precedent for that administration. I mean, he’s going to have to rely on the CIA and on its analysis and on its operations to make his foreign and national-security policies a success. And he’s biting that hand.
Based on conversations you’ve had with people still in the agency, how is the morale?
“It’s actually very low right now. It was high under President Obama – believe me, it pains me to compliment President Obama greatly – but the morale was very high under Obama, because Obama understood the agency. He understood how to use the agency. He understood what the agency could and couldn’t do well. And they’re getting no such respect from Trump.
(This interview was condensed in editing.)