Trump Is Wrong About Waterboarding Plus

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump enters the Verizon Wireless Arena for a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, on February 8. Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

At Saturday's debate in New Hampshire, Donald Trump declared, "I would bring back waterboarding, and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."

On Sunday February 7, he doubled down in an interview with George Stephanopoulos:

Stephanopoulos: As president, you would authorize torture?

Trump: I would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding. And believe me, it will be effective. If we need information, George, you have our enemy cutting heads off of Christians and plenty of others, by the hundreds, by the thousands.

Stephanopoulos: Do we win by being more like them?

Trump: Yes. I'm sorry. You have to do it that way. And I'm not sure everybody agrees with me. I guess a lot of people don't. We are living in a time that's as evil as any time that there has ever been. You know, when I was a young man, I studied Medieval times. That's what they did, they chopped off heads. That's what we have.…

Stephanopoulos: So we're going to chop off heads.…

Trump: We're going to do things beyond waterboarding perhaps, if that happens to come.

As the person who literally wrote the book in defense of waterboarding, this is crazy.

Trump is right that we need the ability to effectively interrogate terrorists so we can get information to stop terrorist attacks. And the Obama administration has not simply banned waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques, it has virtually stopped interrogating terrorists at all.

In almost every case where the Obama administration has located senior Al-Qaeda leaders since taking office, the president has chosen targeted killings over live captures. The problem with this approach is that with every drone strike that vaporizes a senior Al-Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him.

Dead terrorists can't tell you their plans to strike America. We need to start capturing terrorists alive again so we can find out what they know.

But the idea that we need something "beyond waterboarding" to achieve this is absurd. Of the tens of thousands of individuals captured since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, only about 30 were subjected to enhanced interrogation of any kind, and just three underwent waterboarding.

So the idea that we need to go "beyond waterboarding" to get the information we need to protect the country is flat wrong. With the exception of a few extreme cases—like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—we can get the information we need without waterboarding, much less techniques that are "far worse."

That said, Trump's statement almost certainly won't hurt him with voters, who are far more forward leaning when it comes to enhanced interrogation than the political elites in Washington.

A 2014 Washington Post poll found that the vast majority of Americans agree with the CIA that enhanced interrogation techniques were necessary and justified, and 76 percent said they would do it again to protect the country.

Americans were asked, "Looking ahead, do you feel that torture of suspected terrorists can often be justified, sometimes justified, rarely justified or never justified?" Note that the pollsters used the loaded word torture (even though the CIA contends that the techniques did not constitute torture), which should have biased the question in favor of the critics.

Instead, 17 percent replied they would support using the techniques "often," 40 percent "sometimes" and 19 percent "rarely." Only 20 percent said the techniques should "never" be justified.

The fact is, in actual practice the techniques were only used "rarely." So "rarely" is the answer that most closely approximates what actually took place. That means 57 percent of Americans would actually be willing to support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques more frequently than they were actually employed.

Even among self-described liberal Democrats, only 33 percent said enhanced interrogation was "never" justified, while 64 percent said they should be used in the future (27 percent said "often").

So those hoping this would be the gaffe that finally damages Trump's political ascent will likely be disappointed. Americans are not squeamish when it comes to protecting the homeland.

Marc Thiessen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts