The Pentagon's top two leaders testifying on Capitol Hill on Thursday dodged politically loaded questions about torture and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's unapologetic support for waterboarding and systematically targeting suspected terrorists' family members.
As Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford were speaking before the House Appropriations Committee about the Pentagon's latest budget request, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., put the two on the spot about Trump's recent vow to reinstate the use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques that might be considered torture.
The lawmaker also asked about Trump's call for targeting family members of suspected terrorists.
"A leading candidate for president is telling the American people and the world that torture works. He says he will use torture to help defeat [the Islamic State group] including things way beyond waterboarding," McCollum said.
"He says he will order our military to take out the families of Islamic terrorists. And I assume that to mean directing the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to use men and women under your military command to intentionally kill innocent family members, including children," McCollum said.
"Gen. Dunford: Do you support allowing U.S. troops or the intelligence community to use torture to exact information from suspected terrorists? Does the use of torture advance the military or national interest of the United States?" McCollum asked.
Carter stepped in before the general could respond.
"Before the chairman answers the question, I really need to say something," Carter said.
"I think the question is a fair question, but … this is an election year," he said.
"I feel very strongly that our department needs to stand apart from the electoral season so I respectfully decline to answer any questions that arise from the political debate going on," Carter said.
"I want Gen. Dunford, especially even more so than me, to not get involved in political debates," Carter said.
Carter urged McCollum to ask her question in a less inflammatory way.
The exchange stemmed from the Republican candidate's repeated claim that the U.S. and its military have not been aggressive enough with suspected terrorists.
At a Feb. 17 campaign stop in South Carolina, Trump emphasized his intention to reinstate waterboarding and techniques that are "so much worse" and "much stronger."
"Don't tell me it doesn't work — torture works," Trump said. "OK, folks? Torture — you know, half these guys [say]: 'Torture doesn't work.' Believe me, it works. OK?"
In December, Trump told Fox News that "we're fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families," he said.
Trump recently wrote an op-ed in USA Today vowing to do "whatever it takes" to protect the American people.
Use of torture and killing innocent family members would violate international laws, treaties and, possibly, current domestic law.
McCollum responded to Carter's concerns by asking the military officials to make "a blanket statement as to the military role of the use of torture."
"Let me answer the question broadly without getting into what Secretary Carter highlighted," Dunford said.
"One of the things that makes me proud to wear this uniform is that we represent the values of the American people. And when our young men and women go to war, they go with our values. And I think our performance on the battlefield over the past decade-plus of war reflects that young men and women who go to war bring their values with them. And when we find exceptions, you have seen how aggressively we pursue addressing those exceptions."
"I guess what I would say in response to your question is that we should never apologize for going to war with the values of the American people. That is what we've done historically, that is what we expect to do in the future. And again, that is what makes me proud to wear this uniform," Dunford said.
McCollum ended the exchange, saying "Mr. Chairman, I'm assuming the values of the American people does not include torture."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.