CIA director: We won't waterboard terrorists again -- even if the president orders it

The clip’s too short to tell whether he takes legal or moral exception to the practice. (The full interview airs tonight.) Probably both: There’s at least an argument that waterboarding is now banned by statute, not just executive order, in which case Brennan and the CIA could decline to carry out President Trump’s or President Cruz’s order simply on grounds that it’s illegal.

Given his tone, though, I think he’s making more of a moral claim. Order me or my deputies to waterboard, he seems to be saying, and we’ll walk. Whose side would the public, which supports torturing terrorists to the tune of 63 percent in at least some circumstances, take in that dispute?

“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 said…

When asked specifically about waterboarding Brennan could not have been clearer.

“Absolutely, I would not agree to having any CIA officer carrying out waterboarding again,” he said.

Who wins the PR war between the White House and CIA depends in part on who’s president. Cruz has been playing a game where he’s denounced torture emphatically but says he’d allow waterboarding because it doesn’t qualify as torture under the law. There’s some line he won’t cross, at least in theory, raising the question of how eager he’d be to let the CIA get rough with suspects absent urgent circumstances. Trump’s attitude, though, is that jihadis deserve waterboarding even if it doesn’t produce useful intelligence. He supports it as punishment, not just as a pressure tactic to get information. He also likes to point out how much more brutal ISIS’s tactics are (watch the second clip below for his response earlier this morning to Brennan’s comments), which is his way of demanding that the west behave more symmetrically. At the very least, he implies, torturing a few of them will make them think twice about the consequences of attacking America.

All of that being so, it may be that you’d see more CIA resistance to Trump ordering waterboarding than Cruz ordering it. If Cruz does it, I think, it’s likely to come in more narrow circumstances akin to a ticking-bomb scenario. Brennan and some of his underlings would balk, but not all of them. The more dire the emergency, the more likely you are to find CIA officers willing to use force to gain information. With Trump, though, the risk of the slippery slope would be greater. He’s told interviewers plainly that waterboarding isn’t the worst thing that should be done to terrorists and he’s openly proposed using torture for non-interrogational purposes. There’s every reason to think he wants to mainstream the practice as a routine counterterrorism tactic. There’s also every reason to think Trump as C-in-C would push the rules of proper conduct to the breaking point in various areas of national security. Even if you want to toss out his creepy old comments about Tiananmen Square, there’s the minor inconvenient fact that he stood onstage at a national debate a month ago and gloated that the military would obey his orders to target terrorists’ families even though those orders would be illegal. (He walked that back later, no doubt after advisors told him he shouldn’t promise to break the law before the election.) If you’re a CIA agent and you get the waterboarding order from Trump, in other words, there’s every reason to think you’ll be asked to do something worse eventually or that someone in some other natsec department will. That’s a powerful incentive to hold the line before it begins to slip.