Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

2016 Presidential Election Revives Discussion On Torture


A statement by the CIA director has further cracked open a debate about America's recent past. It's a debate over what U.S. intelligence agencies did to gain information and whether they would do it again.


John Brennan told NBC his agency will not waterboard suspects. He said that even as presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump promised to restore the practice. Trump has flatly labeled waterboarding torture and said he would also favor harsher techniques for terror suspects. Let's talk this through with Jane Harman, who's on the line now. She was at the center of this debate after 9/11 because of her post on the House Intelligence Committee. And welcome to the program. And what do you think John Brennan is really saying here?

JANE HARMAN: Well, good morning, Renee and Steve. Let me start with where I was. In 2003, I was the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and I was briefed by the CIA's general counsel about some techniques they had started to employ in late 2002. You can imagine my reaction - or I'll tell you my reaction - because I oppose torture. And I wrote a letter at that time to that counsel as soon as he left my - the intelligence committee rooms where I was briefed, saying I wanted to know what policy guidance there was. Let's understand at the time we all thought we could be attacked again. So to be fair, people were trying to do what they thought was right. But it was wrong. It took Congress two years until 2005 to ban procedures like waterboarding by law. And the 2005 law applies only to Defense Department detainees. But since then, President Obama and actually the U.S. Senate have spoken out again against the use of waterboarding. John Brennan in 2002 to 2003 was at the CIA. He was the deputy executive director and says that during that time, he was not in the chain of command for the interrogation program. And clearly, his views have evolved on the matter, and I applaud him for evolving his views.

MONTAGNE: Well, though, is he saying now that torture does not work or just that the CIA doesn't want to get in trouble for using it?

HARMAN: I think he's saying it doesn't work, and he doesn't want the agency involved. And the reason I think that is that in 2009, while he was President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, he said that waterboarding, quote, "led us astray from our ideals as a nation." And I - you know, I don't know his views of whether it could potentially work. Certainly, the views of John McCain, a former POW, are that it does not work and that in addition to that - I'm just going to quote him - that it "actually damaged our security interests as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world."

MONTAGNE: Well, whatever one may think of torture, although, obviously, one doesn't want to, when in theory, embrace torture, but aren't agencies supposed to do what the president tells them to do?

HARMAN: Well, yes, but let's understand we have a Constitution that says that cruel and unusual punishment is unconstitutional, and we have agreed to the Geneva conventions, which also banned the practice. And in addition to that, well - and I just said we passed a law. So yes, the president, as the commander in chief, has the duty to do what he can to protect the country, but the U.S. Congress and the courts have a duty to do what we think or what I thought as a member of Congress for 17 years are consistent with the Constitution and will achieve a better result.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

HARMAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Former member of Congress and the House Intelligence Committee Jane Harman, she now heads the Woodrow Wilson Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.