For 17 months, I tried to determine what specific standards governed the treatment of detainees by consulting my chain of command. . . . I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder . . . and degrading treatment. I and troops under my command wit nessed some of these abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
–26-year-old U.S. Army Captain Ian Fishback in a September 16 letter to Senator John McCain
[A]ll the evidence suggests a low rate of detainee mistreatment, one that compares favorably with U.S. civilian prisons, never mind that of other and earlier militaries . . . The suggestion [that there is] some kind of whitewash only reveals the remaining accusers for the crackpots they are.
–The Wall Street Journal , editorial board (by Robert L. Pollock), October 1
On October 5, 90 “crackpots” in the United States Senate—46 Republicans, 43 Democrats, and one Independent—passed Republican John McCain’s amendment to the $440 billion Defense Appropriations bill that would prohibit the use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading” punishment of anyone being held in custody by the U.S. government—including detainees—using the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation as the standard.
Former combat pilot John McCain was often tortured during his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Because his father was an admiral, he was offered earlier release by his captors but refused to be freed before prisoners who had been held longer.
During the Senate debate on his amendment, McCain cited the letter he had received from Captain Ian Fishback (whom he later met), and also recalled his years in a North Vietnamese cell:
“Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them even unto death. But every one of us—every single one of us—knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies.”
The Defense Appropriations bill has already been passed by the House of Representatives—without anything resembling the McCain amendment. The Republican leadership in the House vehemently supports the president’s “treatment” of detainees and will fight hard to strip the bill of the McCain amendment in a Senate-House conference that’s likely to take place in a few weeks.
If the McCain amendment prevails in the Senate-House conference, the White House has threatened that George W. Bush will veto the $440 billion Defense Appropriations bill, $50 billion of which is for continuing war in Iraq and for the troubles in Afghanistan.
Last summer, at the order of the president, this—and two other corollary McCain amendments to the same appropriations bill—resulted in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist yanking the entire $440 billion appropriations bill off the Senate floor. The White House was afraid the McCain amendments setting clear standards of prisoner treatment would pass.
Before that happened, Dick Cheney had been sent to muscle McCain to withdraw his amendments. McCain refused. More White House pressure was put on McCain and some of his co-sponsors at the beginning of October, when the appropriations bill came up again. Having refused to crack under North Vietnamese torturers, McCain was not moved.
On October 5, Frist was one of the Republicans who actually voted for prohibiting “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of U.S. prisoners.” Even he knows which way the wind is blowing. But consider what the continuing threat of a presidential veto—of funds for American servicemen on the front lines in Iraq—reveals about George W. Bush.
Bush insistently believes that, as commander in chief, he i
s the law, and neither Congress nor the courts have any right to interfere with his conduct in the war on terrorism.
When there are adverse court decisions partially disagreeing with him, Bush grudgingly appears to back off briefly, but he continues to move in the courts to assure his supremacy.
With Bush threatening to veto the appropriations bill because it contains the McCain amendment, an official White House statement before the Senate vote declared that McCain’s measure would “restrict the president’s authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack and bringing terrorists to Justice.”
The day after the Senate’s resounding disrespect for the president, McCain was asked on the Fox News Channel about the Bush charge that he is impeding the president’s effective protection of all of us from the terrorists.
McCain, who supports the war, calmly and deliberately pointed out that all those in the armed forces who interrogate prisoners “have to know exactly what the parameters are. We cannot engage in torture. This is not what we are. We are better than that. I hope the administration comes to agree with this.”
Another “crackpot” like John McCain, Captain Ian Fishback, whose father is a Vietnam War veteran, told The Washington Post (September 28): “The way we have been treating detainees is immoral. . . . One of the things that infuriates me is that the leaders are not accepting responsibility.”
In his September 16 letter to John McCain, which may someday be included in an anthology of landmark acts of patriotism, Captain Fishback wrote—and somebody should show this to the commander in chief, who doesn’t read newspapers—”Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession.” (Emphasis added.)
A president should award Captain Fishback the Liberty Medal—but it won’t be this president.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 11, 2005