President Clinton: The Generals Are Right; No Exception on Torture Ban
Public rejection of torture continues to grow. Yesterday, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, former President Bill Clinton expressed his opposition to policies authorizing torture. He explained that he agreed with retired military leaders who have been outspoken in their opposition to torture and said, “I think America’s policy should be to oppose torture, to honor the Geneva Conventions for several reasons. One is, it’s almost always counterproductive. If you beat somebody up, they’ll tell you what they want to hear. Two is, it, it really hurts us in the rest of the world and helps to recruit other terrorists. And thirdly, it makes our own people vulnerable to torture.”
Here’s the full transcript:
MR. RUSSERT: I want to talk some politics with you. The other night, the
Democratic debate in New Hampshire, I read a statement…
MR. CLINTON: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: …of our conversation from last year.
MR. CLINTON: I remember that very well.
(Videotape, September 24, 2006)
MR. CLINTON: Every one of us can imagine the following scenario: We get lucky, we get the number three guy in al-Qaeda, and we know there’s a big bomb going off in America in three days, and we know this guy knows where it is, know we have the right and the responsibility to beat it out of him.
They could set up a law where the president could make a finding or could guarantee a pardon or could guarantee the submission of that sort of thing post-facto to the intelligence court just like we do now with the wiretaps.
MR. RUSSERT: Now, I didn’t tell Senator Clinton, who had made that comment to me. This was her answer. Let’s watch.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): As a matter of policy, it cannot be American policy period. Now, there are a lot of other things that we need to be doing that I wish we were: better intelligence, making our, you know, our country better respected around the world working to have more allies. But these hypotheticals are very dangerous, because they open a great big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president takes toward the appropriate treatment of everyone. And I think it’s dangerous to go down this path.
MR. RUSSERT: Doesn’t seem as if she’s for the exception that you were outlining.
MR. CLINTON: She was great, though. I thought—and I thought the next part of it, where she said…
MR. RUSSERT: We’re going to get to that!
MR. CLINTON: Yeah. You know, I, I went back and read the whole transcript, and, as general point, I think she’s right. That is I think America’s policy should be to oppose torture, to honor the Geneva Conventions for several reasons. One is, it’s almost always counterproductive. If you beat somebody up, they’ll tell you what
they want to hear. Two is, it, it really hurts us in the rest of the world and helps to recruit other terrorists. And thirdly, it makes our own people vulnerable to torture.
You know, there’s a one in a million chance that you might be alone somewhere, and you’re Jack Bauer on “24.” That’s the Jack Bauer example, right? It happens every season with Jack Bauer, but to—in the real world it doesn’t happen very much. If you have a policy which legitimizes this, it’s a slippery slope and you get in the kind of trouble we’ve been in here with Abu Ghraib, with Guantanamo, with lots of other examples.
And I’m not even sure what I said is right now. I think what happens is the honest truth is that Tim Russert, Bill Clinton, people filming this show, if we were the Jack Bauer person and it was six hours to the bomb or whatever, you don’t know what you would do, and you have to—but I think what our policy ought to be is to be uncompromisingly opposed to terror—I mean to torture, and that if you’re the Jack Bauer person, you’ll do whatever you do and you should be prepared to take the consequences. And I think the consequences will be imposed based on what turns out to be the truth. I think there are a lot of areas in life where you don’t. But I, I loved how she handled this whole thing. I guess you want to show the rest now.
MR. RUSSERT: But, but not heavy formal exception.
MR. CLINTON: Yeah, I don’t think you should now. The more I think about it, and the more I have seen that, if you have any kind of formal exception, people just drive a truck through it, and they’ll say “Well, I thought it was covered by the exception.” I think, I think it’s better not to have one. And if you happen to be the actor in that moment which, as far as I know, has not occurred in my experience or President Bush’s experience since we’ve been really dealing with this terror, but I—you actually had the Jack Bauer moment, we call it, I think you should be prepared to live with the consequences. And yet, ironically, if you look at the show, every time they get the president to approve something, the president gets in trouble, the country gets in trouble. And when Bauer goes out there on his own and is prepared to live with the consequences, it always seems to work better.
MR. RUSSERT: I then…
MR. CLINTON: So Hillary’s probably right about this.
MR. RUSSERT: I then asked—told Senator Clinton my source, and let’s watch.
RUSSERT: The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year.
SEN. CLINTON: Well…
MR. RUSSERT: So he disagrees with you.
SEN. CLINTON: Well, he’s not standing here right now.
MR. RUSSERT: So there is a disagreement.
SEN. CLINTON: Well, I’ll talk to him later.
MR. RUSSERT: Tell me about—you’ve seen that look before?
MR. CLINTON: I have. Several times over the last 35 years. I loved it.
MR. RUSSERT: How was that conversation? Did you talk about it?
MR. CLINTON: No, I told her I thought she was terrific. And I told her, you know, how the whole thing came up. And I, and I told her, number one, I thought that the moment was great. I thought it was the defining moment of the debate. And number two, that I had decided what I just told you, that on the policy she was right, that you didn’t—once you start constructing exceptions you—you’re opening floodgates for trucks to drive through. It’s far better if you happen to the be the agent that has to deal with that, just suck it up and decide what you think is right and be prepared to live with the consequences. I think that—I think the generals were right, I think that she’s right, and I know that Senator Biden and others said the same thing. But the main thing is, she had a chance, because of this moment, to demonstrate what I know to be the truth, which is she’s perfectly comfortable making these national security calls and others even if she has to disagree with me and other people with whom she has broad agreement and for whom she has great respect. That’s what you want a president to do. You want them to listen to everybody then decide, and you want to have confidence that they will execute their decision with conviction. And I just loved it. Plus, it was funny, you know, that you, you showed that. But I, I was really proud of her. It was good.