Some time has passed since we last checked in on the pro-torture caucus of the 2016 Republican presidential field. There are a number of would-be presidents on the Republican side who either support reinstating the “enhanced interrogation tactics” employed on terrorism detainees during the Bush administration, or at least refuse to rule out the use of such tactics. The group of pro-torture candidates is growing, while the number of candidates who’ve ruled out the use of torture remains stubbornly low and unchanged. The latest Republican contender to embrace torture is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this week (again) and vocally defended the legality and efficacy of waterboarding as an interrogation tactic.
Before we get to that, the stage must be set. The torture question came up courtesy of Joe Scarborough, who, in typical Scarborough fashion, prefaced his query with a lengthy explanation of how smart and informed Joe Scarborough is. “It sounds like your views are similar to mine on the war on terror: pretty tough, pretty expansive,” he said. “I don’t sit here wringing my hands over the three terrorists who were waterboarded, maybe because I know more details about it than many others.”
Having established that Joe Scarborough is tough and knows what he’s talking about, Scarborough asked his question. “But when I hear you say that you don’t care if waterboarding works or not,” he said to Christie, “that you will continue waterboarding because, quote, they deserve it—" At that point Christie broke in and explained that he didn’t say that. Donald Trump said that.
It was an embarrassing moment for the spectacularly well-informed Scarborough, but it was also a fortuitous gaffe in that it resulted in Christie explaining his thoughts on why torture is legal and good:
CHRISTIE: We should do whatever we need to do to get actionable intelligence that’s within the Constitution.
SCARBOROUGH: Is that [waterboarding] torture?
CHRISTIE: I don’t believe so. I don’t believe so. And I will tell you that the intelligence officers who conducted that activity were told by the Justice Department that what they were doing was lawful and constitutional. And then you have Barack Obama come in, and Hillary Clinton, and second-guess these people, demean them, and kill their morale. These are people doing a dangerous job in a dirty world, and we need to support them because they are the first line of defense between us and ISIS, between us and al Qaeda. And if you’re sitting in the basement of the Senate, you don’t understand that.
There’s quite a bit of disingenuous hand-waving going on here – he morphs Obama’s condemnation of torture into an attack on all intelligence personnel – but the key points he makes are a) waterboarding does not count as “torture,” and b) the Bush Justice Department said this and other techniques were legal. Really they’re just variations on the same point, given that anything considered torture would be very much illegal.
Putting any sort of faith in the torture memos from the Bush DOJ is not a good look for a would-be commander-in-chief, given that those memos are broadly viewed as a legal atrocity, a “perversion of law and logic” that sought only to apply the thinnest veneer of legality to the Bush administration’s decision to violate the Geneva Conventions. The administration’s torture policy was arrived at and implemented in secret, and it was premised on a theory of executive power that says the president can do pretty much whatever he or she wants in a time of war. Christie says he wants to do “whatever we need to do to get actionable intelligence that’s within the Constitution,” but that’s a meaningless statement if you subscribe to the Bush administration’s notion that the Constitution can be unilaterally reinterpreted to justify whatever action you think is necessary.
The legacy of our torture program isn’t just the gross moral failing and abandonment of our values – it’s also the fact that the people who engineered this disgusting, illegal and anti-American program of systematic abuse also got away with it free and clear. That lack accountability resonates and informs the behaviors of subsequent administrations, who can assume with a high degree of confidence that any behavior, no matter how obviously illegal, can be rationalized and defended after-the-fact. Chris Christie says torture was legal because the people who authorized the torturing said it was legal. And he’d be fine with bringing torture back because he has every reason to believe he’d get away with it too.