The use of torture on terrorism-related detainees is back in the spotlight following the release of a landmark new Senate investigative report on the practice during the Bush administration.
The once-heated national debates about so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Tactics” subsided when President Obama issued an executive order barring their use two days after taking office, but they were an important side note during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary between Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, who will likely run to replace her former rival in 2016.
There appears to be broad consensus against torture in all cases among Clinton and other Democrats eyeing a potential presidential run in two years, though the question of prosecuting CIA officers who engaged in the practices remains open.
Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders both have spoken out strongly since the release of the report Tuesday. The views of two other candidates likely to run, former Sen. Jim Webb and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, are less clear, however. Webb opposed torture in the Senate, but has been out of office for several years, while O’Malley, as a governor, is not expected to articulate opinions on foreign policy.
Now a private citizen herself, Clinton has not spoken often on the subject since stepping down as secretary of state early last year. But during a conversation at the Council on Foreign Relations sponsored by HBO in June, Clinton called for the release of the Senate report, but said she did not support prosecuting CIA interrogators.
“I am hopeful it will get released,” Clinton said of the report, which was hung up in negotiations between the administration and Senate. “I was not one of those who thought it was necessarily wise to ignore everything that had happened. I thought we needed more transparency ... I think the American people deserve to see it.”
But Clinton continued that she “didn't want people to be criminally prosecuted, people who were doing what they were told to do, that there were legal opinions supporting what they were told to do.”
In new her memoir about her time helming State, “Hard Choices,” Clinton adds: “There was no denying that our country’s approach to human rights had gotten somewhat out of balance” after the Bush administration. She also praised Obama’s order “prohibiting the use of torture or official cruelty,” using the term the Bush administration refused to use for the harsh interrogation tactics.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, however, torture was a minor issue adjacent to the central disagreement on the Iraq War. Clinton, to the right of the rest of the field on foreign policy, took a more nuanced view on torture than some of her competitors, like then-Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
The two challengers opposed the use of torture in all cases, but Clinton at first carved out an exception for a ticking time bomb scenario. "In the event we were ever confronted with having to interrogate a detainee with knowledge of an imminent threat to millions of Americans, then the decision to depart from standard international practices must be made by the president,” she told the New York Daily News in 2007.
In an editorial board meeting, she added that there "are very rare” circumstances when an exception to the no torturing rule would be needed, and “if they occur, there has to be some lawful authority for pursuing it."
Obama attacked her on the issue in a late January 2008 speech in Denver, suggesting her position on torture even put her to the right of the then-presumed GOP nominee John McCain, who opposed the harsh tactics after being tortured in Vietnam.
But by then, Clinton had changed her position. When asked about a ticking time bomb scenario during a debate in September 2007, she categorically ruled out the use of torture. "It cannot be American policy, period,” she said.
That held as her policy, despite the fact that it initially put her in disagreement with her husband, who often cited the TV show “24” as an example of why torture is sometimes necessary.
On Tuesday, following the release of the Senate report, Biden was asked about torture at an event hosted by Politico. “Its a badge of honor,” he said of the report. “Every country has engaged in activity not proud of but name another country that will stand up and say we made a mistake and we won't do it again.”
“With regard to who should be prosecuted,” he continued. “It is for the Justice Department to determine if action should be taken.”
Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had a strict anti-torture policy going back at least to his 2008 Democratic presidential bid. He’s currently considering another run in 2016. "Honest to God, I haven't made up my mind," he said Tuesday.
Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is also seriously considering a run for the presidency as a Democrat, said Tuesday that the report “details an ugly chapter in American history during which our leaders and the intelligence community dishonored our nation’s proud traditions.”
Sanders, who chairs the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee, said he opposed the practice at all times. “The United States must not engage in torture. If we do, in an increasingly brutal world, we lose our moral standing to condemn other nations or groups that engage in uncivilized behavior.”
Webb and O’Malley have not spoken publicly on the issue recently, and spokespeople for both did not reply to requests for comment.
While he was in the Senate, Webb, a veteran and foreign intervention skeptic, warned torture could be counterproductive and yield bad evidence.