CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Jeb Bush as saying he was ”struggling with” whether as president he would reverse a ban on interrogation techniques. In fact, Bush said he was “not struggling with” his views.
DAVENPORT, Iowa — Jeb Bush said he won’t commit to continuing the Obama administration’s ban on the enhanced interrogation techniques commonly accepted as torture.
“I don’t want to make a definitive blanket kind of statement — this is something I’m not struggling with,” Bush said at a national security forum in Iowa. “I’m running for president. I’m not running for the Senate or running for governor. When you’re president your words matter, and I’m cautious about making commitments without having all the facts because this is a serious one.”
With his latest comments, the former Florida governor waded into yet another fraught national security area associated with the administration of his brother, President George W. Bush.
Bush told reporters at a later event elsewhere in Iowa, “There’s a difference between enhanced interrogation techniques and torture. Torture’s — America doesn’t do torture.”
When asked which techniques he considered torture and which he’d consider authorizing, Bush responded, “I don’t know. I’m just saying, if I’m going to be president of the United States, I take this threat seriously. It’s not a law enforcement operation, these are people who want to destroy Americans’ way of life and they want to destroy Western civilization.”
Asked specifically if he would re-authorize waterboarding, Bush responded, “I’m not ruling anything in or out.”
Bush’s initial comments came during an appearance at Thursday’s Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security event, in Davenport.
“I do think, in general, that torture is not appropriate and effective, and the change in policy that my brother did and was put into executive order form by the president was the proper thing to do,” he continued. But he added later, “That’s why I’m not saying that in every condition under every possible scenario [we wouldn’t use torture] — God knows what the next president is going to have to do.”
When pressed to say whether he could commit to keeping President Barack Obama’s executive order, Bush reiterated, “I’m not gonna go through every possible scenario that’s gonna come up.”
“At the moment, we’ve got people out there protecting the United States of America, protecting its citizens. And one of the most important duties, if not the most important duty of the president is to do the same,” he continued, to applause.
President Bush clarified limits on the government’s use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques after his administration was rocked by detainee abuse scandals and allegations of torture. “I’m glad you brought that up,” Bush quipped after the moderator allowed his brother had taken action toward ending the practice before Obama took office. In the wake of 9/11, and the rush to both find those responsible and also prevent another terrorist attack, Bush administration officials interpreted the law or exploited loopholes in order to approve some techniques, such as waterboarding, which are now widely viewed as torture, even after Congress passed legislation to prohibit “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”
Obama issued an executive order on one of his first days in office in order to codify and explicitly ban such techniques and try and prevent them from being used again. Earlier this year, the Senate passed by vote of 78 to 21 an amendment to the annual defense authorization act titled, “Reaffirmation on the Prohibition of Torture.” Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the former chair of the Intelligence Committee who spearheaded the investigation of the CIA program, and John McCain, R-Ariz., the current chair of the Armed Services Committee and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who was tortured, championed the legislation in order to try and make that ban permanent. Congress is expected to move on the authorization bill upon their return in September.
Bush defended decisions of his brother and members of the intelligence community in response to 9/11.
“I also would say that what happened on 9/11, we were attacked, and my brother — and I’m not saying this because I’m a Bush, I’m saying this because I love this country, just like everybody in this room — I’m proud of what he did to create a secure environment for our country,” he said. “I’m proud of the men and women who served under enormous stress to keep us safe as well.”
Members of the intelligence community have pushed back against the excoriation of these techniques by the international community and investigations by lawmakers, saying the interrogation program was effective. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,700-page report on the CIA’s interrogation program concluded the use of torture didn’t produce credible intelligence that thwarted terrorists and saved lives.
“It probably was effective for garnering the intelligence, but now we’re in a different environment,” Bush said.
Bush also said that future and current U.S. detainees in the war on terrorism should be held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Obama administration’s intelligence leaders recently have said they view the prison has potency as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups, and its cost in dollars outweighs its usefulness for the shrinking prisoner population there. Bush noted the high cost of detaining prisoners at Guantanamo but said transfers to the U.S. aren’t appropriate. “You keep them there,” he said.
Bush said his caution on making a commitment on torture was not based in ethical concerns, but rather the scrutiny his comments might receive. “The whole world as we know, is digitized,” he said, revealing some reluctance with the spotlight of the campaign, “My whole life … you know every word is dissected these days.”
That reticence could prove challenging for Bush as he also takes a more aggressive tack on national security, seeking to reframe his brother’s Iraq War as a victory until Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton withdrew U.S. troops in 2011. Clinton and Bush have been exchanging barbs over the debate of “who lost Iraq” that has carried through three presidential elections. The relitigation has taken on new urgency amid the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and in the ramp up toward Election Day in 2016.
Unlike his speech at the Reagan Presidential Library Tuesday, Bush directly defended his brother in Thursday’s forum, which was question-and-answer session. But President Bush’s absence from Jeb Bush’s address just a few days ago was notable.