McCain’s crooked talk on torture

Critics, including a local former army interrogator, say he’s trying to play both sides of the issue
By IAN DONNIS  |  September 18, 2008

McCain-tortureinside.jpg
THE LIMITS OF PAIN: Although Ritz faults McCain for what he calls inconsistency on the issue, both
men agree that torture is ineffective in extracting useful information from prisoners.

Regardless of your political stripe, it’s hard not to be impressed by how John McCain endured and overcame his five-and-half painful years in a Vietnam prison camp. And not only did he fight and suffer for America, as Fred Thompson reminded us in cringe-inducing detail during the recent Republican National Convention, the Arizona senator has come to be viewed as a leading legislative opponent of torture.

McCain’s firsthand experience and moral outrage was evident during the Republican presidential primary: he quickly rebuked Rudy Giulani when the former New York mayor made light of sleep deprivation and questioned whether waterboarding — simulated drowning — was really a form of torture.

More recently, on August 31, Reuters reported that McCain, during a Fox News interview, “issued some of his harshest criticism to date of the use of torture against terrorism suspects during President George W. Bush’s administration . . . ‘I obviously don’t want to torture any prisoners. There is a long list of areas that we were in disagreement on,’ McCain said of Bush.”

So it might surprise some people to learn that McCain’s record in opposing torture and the Bush administration’s terror-war approach is more complicated than his comments suggest:

In February, he voted against a Senate bill (now in legislative limbo) to ban the CIA from using harsh interrogation techniques on terror war detainees, theoretically leaving waterboarding and other “enhanced” tactics on the table as an instrument of US policy.

He tacitly supported the nomination as attorney general of Michael Mukasey — who, when asked by US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse during Senate confirmation hearings — flatly declined to say whether he considered waterboarding a form of torture.

In June, McCain joined President Bush in condemning a US Supreme Court decision that gave federal court access for detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Meanwhile, debate continues about the impact of two complex pieces of legislation, the Detainee Treatment Act (passed in 2005) and the Military Commissions Act (2006), which helped burnish McCain’s reputation as a leading US opponent of torture.

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Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, credits McCain for his role in advancing the Detainee Treatment Act, which, Malinowski says, reportedly led the CIA to stop its use of waterboarding by indicating a lack of political support for the tactic. (Then again, as he acknowledges, in an era when US intelligence holds some detainees at extra-judicial “black sites” in other countries, it’s impossible to know exactly what is taking place.)

Moving forward, the bill that McCain voted against in February “was the only sure [legal] way of keeping the CIA from using techniques like waterboarding until a new president can be sworn in,” says Malinowski. He attributes the stance to election-year politics, adding, “It set back the fight against torture for up to year, but I don’t question McCain’s personal commitment to abolish torture if he’s elected president.”

On the whole, McCain’s public image as an opponent of torture “still matches up quite well” with his actions, Malinowski says — provided the discussion doesn’t take into account the effect of his stances on habeas corpus, access to courts for detainees, and other long-established principles of the American rule of law.

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