Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump watches as Ted Cruz speaks during Saturday's Republican debate in Manchester, N.H. (Joe Raedle, Getty Images)

How is it possible that presidential

candidates are still debating whether the United States should torture detainees in the war on terror? That question was settled — or should have been — long ago, with the answer an emphatic no.

Congress has weighed in against torture at least twice, first in a vote a decade ago that banned torture by the military and then last year with an expanded torture ban that includes intelligence agencies, including the CIA.

And yet on Saturday in the final Republican debate before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump embraced the use of waterboarding and called for interrogation techniques that are "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding"; Ted Cruz tried to have it both ways by denying that waterboarding is torture; and Marco Rubio dodged the question.

Only Jeb Bush among those invited to answer clearly declared that he would abide by the present ban on waterboarding and not seek to revive the practice.

The public is used to Trump's over-the-top, simplistic take on issues, so his embrace of torture — which is illegal under international and domestic law — is not surprising.

Cruz's position, by constrast, is more complex and yet misleading.

The Texas senator, who was one of 78 senators to vote in favor of last year's broad ban on torture, maintained that "under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems" — and thus waterboarding is exempt. In effect, Cruz resurrected an infamous 2002 Justice Department memo that said torture involves discomfort "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death," or enduring psychological harm.


But that memo was an attempt to rewrite the definition of torture, which nearly all authorities agree includes pain and abuse well short of anything so drastic as organ failure. And it most certainly includes waterboarding, where a victim experiences the sensation of drowning.

Cruz also attempted to square the circle by claiming "enhanced interrogation methods" are justified to "prevent a city from facing an imminent terrorist attack." This is the old "ticking time bomb" scenario, in which a captured terrorist knows the location of a bomb about to go off. What to do? Why, get him to talk by any means available.

The trouble with the ticking time bomb scenario, however, is that it applies to none of the known cases during the Bush administration in which the U.S. resorted to torture. It is a hypothetical case invented to discredit the idea that torture is universally wrong.

But inflicting pain on prisoners is wrong. It degrades all involved, is as likely to elicit false information as the truth, and provides justification for other countries to torture our combatants, too.

And every candidate in 2016 ought to be willing to say so.

To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit online or check out our guidelines for how to submit by e-mail or mail.

Browse photography at Denver.Gallery.