Ted Cruz, who has long been an outspoken opponent of torture, reversed himself during Saturday’s Republican presidential debate when he endorsed an extreme and discredited definition of torture: that anything that inflicts less pain than losing an organ doesn’t count.
That definition, which Cruz said was “generally recognized,” is anything but. It comes from a 2003 Justice Department memo that the department later rescinded, acknowledging that it was full of slipshod legal arguments, clouded by ideology, and written under pressure from CIA officials who had already begun to torture terror suspects.
It’s such an extreme definition that it calls into question whether the treatment Cruz’s father endured in a Cuban prison — which the Texas senator has previously pointed to as his motivation to oppose torture — would qualify.
In his 2015 book, A Time for Truth, Cruz tells the story of his father, Rafael Bienvenido Cruz, who, as a teenager, fought in support of Fidel Castro’s revolution. After an informant for the Batista regime turned him in, Rafael was imprisoned. Cruz describes his torture:
They threw him in a rotten cell, acrid with the smell of blood, grim, and urine. Men with clubs beat him. His captors broke his nose when they kicked him in the head with their army boot. They bashed in his front teeth until they dangled from his mouth. In each round of beatings the pain was unbearable.
In the book, Cruz quotes his father as saying: “You know, the Cubans weren’t fancy with their torture methods. They would just come into your jail cell every couple of hours and beat the crap out of you.”
Cruz has often said that his father’s suffering was a source of inspiration. “When you grow up in the home of an immigrant who’s seen prison and torture, who’s seen freedom stripped away,” Cruz told the Associated Press, “you grow up with an acute appreciation for how precious and fragile our liberty is.”
After the release of the Senate torture report in 2014, Cruz told the Heritage Foundation that “Torture is wrong. Unambiguously. Period. The end.” Cruz has said that “America does not need torture to protect itself,” and last June, he voted for an amendment sponsored by Sen. John McCain, which required that overseas interrogations comply with regulations in the U.S. Army Field Manual.
Cruz’s stand on torture put him at odds with many of his Republican colleagues. Twenty-two Republican senators opposed the amendment, including rival presidential candidate Marco Rubio. According to a new Pew Survey, a large majority of Republican voters — 73 percent — think torture can be justified against people suspected of terrorism.
At Saturday’s Republican debate, when Cruz was asked whether waterboarding is torture, he replied that it is not. “Under the law, torture is excruciating pain equivalent to losing organs and systems,” he said. So waterboarding “does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture.”
President George W. Bush adopted a similar position: He admitted that he authorized waterboarding on national television, while maintaining that “The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it, and I will not authorize it.”
During Saturday’s debate, Cruz went on to say that he would bring waterboarding back, but not “in any sort of widespread use.”
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump said that he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Cruz’s more limited endorsement of torture led Trump, at a rally on Monday, to repeat an insult from the crowd, calling Cruz a “pussy.”