Cross-posted at Balkinization
There should by now be little doubt that various members of the incoming administration, including the President himself, would be willing to torture terrorist suspects should opportunity arise. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump expressed a desire to return to “waterboarding” terrorism suspects and “worse.” Mike Pence declined to rule out torture when asked about it expressly this past weekend. Nominee for CIA Director Mike Pompeo opposed President Obama’s decision in 2009 to close C.I.A. black-site prisons and also to require interrogations to comply with the rules of the Army Field Manual. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the choice for national security adviser, is perhaps more equivocal. As a firsthand witness to the counterproductive effects of abusive interrogation, he has said that “I would not want to return to ‘enhanced techniques,’ because I helped rewrite the manual for interrogations.” On the other hand, “if the nation was in grave danger from a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction, and we had certain individuals in our custody with information that might avoid it, then I would probably OK enhanced interrogation techniques within certain limits.”
Even with all best intentions, Congress and the courts are unlikely to play much role at the outset in reining in this particular kind of presidential ambition. There are clear statutory prohibitions against the use of torture as it is; and the courts are empowered to act only once an actual case or controversy is before them. It was in no small measure in the face of the same dilemma during the first George W. Bush administration that so many legal scholars turned to focus on the role of internal, intra-branch checks on executive power – the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, agency Inspectors General, and others. It also became apparent that the uniformed military could be included among potentially available checks on executive power.
After the attacks of 9/11, military lawyers and others in the Pentagon played a critical role resisting efforts by the Bush Administration to evade laws barring torture and cruelty to detainees in U.S. custody. Not only was such treatment illegal, they argued, authorizing techniques the troops had long been trained were prohibited was disastrous policy: it sowed confusion in the field, compromised operational effectiveness, endangered our troops, and undermined the mission they had been sent to carry out. Well beyond the Pentagon, it was a young Army specialist who helped blow the whistle on the torture that permeated the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and a Major General whose investigation made clear to Congress how inadequate resources, training, and accountability helped allow the abuse to endure and spread. Elsewhere, military lawyers urged Congress to investigate whether war crimes trials at Guantanamo could ever actually succeed in delivering justice. And it was an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel whose declaration about his experiences at Guantanamo extraordinarily persuaded the Supreme Court to change its mind and agree to decide whether the detainees there had a constitutional right to have their cases heard. Entirely apart from the military’s duty to disobey manifestly unlawful orders, both active duty military, and retired leaders, played a pivotal role in preventing America’s torture crisis from becoming worse than it was.
Yet as laudable as this service was, and especially as the incoming administration peoples itself with retired generals galore, the idea that the military might limit the President in the pursuit of his goals should seem at some level exactly backwards. The President is, after all, the Commander in Chief of the military, a symbol of our country’s bedrock principle of civilian control. That principle was born in part from a (Revolutionary War-era) fear of military oppression in ordinary life, a fear that seems unlikely today. But it was also driven by the worry that the military – whose political popularity is unsurpassed in contemporary American life – was capable of exercising outsized influence over democratic decision-making. The image of the “man on horseback” came to symbolize the concern that a particularly successful and charismatic commander could effectively lead the public down a path contrary to its own democratic interests, undermining the ability of elected leaders to accomplish the policy goals the People wanted them to fulfill.
While the military has of course changed dramatically since the Constitution was drafted, the enduring concern that the military might unduly influence politics led to a series of regulations beginning in the early twentieth century restricting active-duty military from engaging in political activities. Congress came to prohibit officers from holding civil elective office, and to impose criminal penalties for using “contemptuous words” against the President, members of Congress, or other elected officials. Today, active duty military personnel are prohibited from participating in partisan political fundraising, rallies, or conventions; using official authority or influence to interfere with an election; or soliciting votes “for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.”
Such proscriptions are sensible. But these rules, coupled with powerful career incentives, have too often been understood to limit the honest expression of professional military dissent. There was in Washington’s time, and today remains, a critical difference between a military expression of partisan alliance and one of professional judgment. And there is certainly a difference between expressions of political disagreement, and an insistence on adherence to law. The era of Abu Ghraib taught us that there is a range of ways in which the military can, consistent with their own duty to uphold the nation’s Constitution and laws, help to steady the ship of state. Of course the military is no panacea. Plenty of troops supported Donald Trump, and not all would oppose a return to torture. But it is also clear that the military is capable of performing at least a part of the same service Americans should expect of all our political institutions: as a platform from which people of good will and a commitment to law can make their voices heard. Those concerned about a return to torture should reach out. For it is as least as likely as any of our institutional checks to help constrain whatever policy adventurism is to come.