BY NIELS LESNIEWSKI AND JOHN T. BENNETT
PHILADELPHIA — Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune might not have been expecting to get pressed on U.S. torture policy Wednesday, when speaking to the media assembled for the annual GOP issues retreat.
But that was before The Associated Press reported that President Donald Trump was preparing an executive order directing a review of interrogation practices, a directive that the White House denied producing.
However, after the AP report started making the rounds, clips of an interview with Trump by ABC News were released, and the new president said he had asked intelligence officials, “Does torture work?” and they answered, “Yes, absolutely,” according to the president.
That didn’t change Thune’s tune.
“Those issues are settled law. Congress has spoken,” the South Dakota Republican said when asked about the possibility of the U.S. government reopening so-called black sites to torture suspected terrorists.
Thune was opening the Republican issues retreat along with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.
The sentiment that interrogation methods are a matter of settled law is not universal among Republicans, however. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, a freshman on the Armed Services Committee and the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said she backs a full review.
“I think that it’s been clear, certainly since we stopped the enhanced interrogation program, we’re not even in a position anymore, frankly, where [we’re] out and catching people,” she said.
“I think that what we’ve got on the books now in terms of the current authorization for the use of military force is still valid. We are still engaged in the war on terror,” Cheney told reporters. “We’re in a situation today where once the president, the review goes through, and we, what’s happened in terms of the usefulness of enhanced interrogation, the difference between the enhanced interrogation manual techniques and the Army field manual techniques, I think that we can then decide what steps are necessary next.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, who has personal experience being held captive and tortured by the North Vietnamese, blasted the potential policy changes even before lawmakers arrived in Center City.
“The president can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America,” the Arizona Republican said. “During both our personal conversations and his confirmation hearing, CIA Director Mike Pompeo repeatedly committed to me that he will comply with the law that applies the Army field manual’s interrogation requirements to all U.S. agencies, including the CIA.”
McCain said Defense Secretary James Mattis said likewise in response to a query in writing.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois was closer to Cheney’s side of the debate.
“When it comes to enhanced interrogation techniques, look, I’ve always said, personally, we should never revert to those in the first place but you can never take anything out of your hip pocket,” he said. “You never know what you don’t know. You never know what situation you may be in.”
Under the draft that has been circulating, newly captured “enemy combatants” would be sent to the U.S. naval detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which candidate Trump vowed to fill with “bad dudes” after the Obama administration reduced its population to a few dozen inmates.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday attempted to distance the administration from the document that was floating around Washington.
“It is not a White House document,” Spicer said. “This is now, I think, the second day that we’ve had a document that was not a White House document get reported on as a factual document. It is not a White House document. I have no idea where it came from, but it is not a White House document.”
Asked if the White House directed its crafting, Spicer said he is “not sure where it came from or how it originated — but it is not a White House document. I don’t know how much clearer I can say that.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.