McCain Retreats on Terror


On February 13, in a historic vote, the Senate—following the lead of the House—for the first time explicitly prohibited the CIA from using torture in its interrogations. A section of the 2008 Intelligence Authorization Act mandates that the CIA, despite the special powers given it by the president, is bound by the rules of the Army Field Manual, thereby setting a single standard for all interrogations by U.S. forces.

The Army Field Manual bars waterboarding, conducting mock executions, exposing prisoners to extremes of heat or cold, refusing medicine and or mental-health care, beating or using electrodes to shock detainees, and other violations of international treaties and our own laws.

As soon as this proposal had surfaced, the White House’s first reaction was: “Dangerous and misguided!” When a majority of Congress disobeyed the commander in chief, Bush vowed to veto the bill.

The Senate measure was brought by Democrats Dianne Feinstein, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Russ Feingold, and Republican Chuck Hagel. Since the vote was 51 to 45, it took four Republicans and one independent—Richard Lugar, Susan Collins, Olympia Snow, Gordon Smith, and Bernie Sanders, respectively—to assure passage by joining the Democrats. (The only other independent in the Senate, Joseph Lieberman, voted for the President and against the anti-torture amendment.)

When the ban on torture passed the House in December, 229 had voted for it. Of the 199 nays, 189 were Republicans. As a December 28 editorial in Vermont’s Brattleboro Reformer sardonically noted: “At least the Republicans are honest about their love of torture. . . . Our [Republican] leaders in Washington are . . . complicit in the carrying out of war crimes.”

Among the Republicans in the Senate voting to carry out the wishes of Bush, Cheney, and the CIA was presidential nominee John McCain, who had formerly been the leading warrior against our use of torture, famously proclaiming that it’s not a matter of “who they [the enemy] are. It’s who we are!”

This was not the first time that Mr. Integrity has retreated on torture. McCain voted for the 2006 Military Commissions Act, which gave Bush the authority to allow the CIA to continue its special brand of “coercive interrogations”—a license that Bush himself validated in an executive order last July.

Now, showing that he will be ready on Day 1 of his presidency to join the CIA in defending us against terrorism, McCain explains his newfound support for these practices by saying: “We always supported allowing the CIA to use extra measures. . . . What we need is not to tie the CIA to the Army Field Manual.” McCain insists he still believes that waterboarding is torture and therefore illegal; he also insists that his vote against a single standard for interrogating prisoners that outlaws waterboarding is “consistent”—somehow—with his previous positions.

In contrast to McCain’s doublespeak, Senator Dianne Feinstein, after the victory of her Senate resolution, said: “This is a significant achievement. The Senate has stood tall, and the House has stood tall, and change is in the air.”

Tartly, she continued: “The President himself said on June 22, 2004: ‘I do not condone torture. We do not torture.’ “

Before the Senate decided to take its stand—and while the administration was still leaning on senators to reject the provision—the global significance of reining in the CIA’s congenital lawlessness was distilled by Elisa Massimino. She’s the director of the Washington office of Human Rights First, which has long been pressing and organizing—especially among the many military lawyers who oppose torture—for a single standard on prisoner interrogations.

Massimino said: “The world no longer knows what the United States means when it says ‘We do not torture’ and ‘We treat prisoners humanely,’ because this administration’s policies have drained those words of their meaning.

“That is a dangerous situation for our troops [if they are captured by the enemy], and it has had a devastating impact on U.S. moral authority and standing in the world. It is now up to the Senate to pass this important legislation and ensure that interrogators—civilian and military—have the clear guidance they need to perform their critical duties in accordance with U.S. law and American values.”

In the debates between Barack Obama and John McCain, I hope Obama will confront McCain on his vote on the Army Field Manual measure and remind him of what General David Petraeus—whose command in Iraq McCain strongly supports—said last May in an open letter to the troops:

“What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight . . . is how we behave. . . . Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. . . . Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone ‘talk’; however, what the [tortured] individual says may be of questionable value.

“In fact, our experience applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations that was published [in 2006] . . . shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.” (Emphasis added.) FBI director Robert Mueller agrees, and so does Lieutenant General Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

It’s imperative for the next president to restore what our name used to stand for in the world. Back in 2005, the Prague Post had an editorial that I commend to Obama: “For Eastern Europe, the value the United States places on individual freedom and human rights has been a beacon. But a beacon can be swiftly extinguished. Meddling with the terms of justice, the current U.S. administration may be doing irreparable harm to a vision of uniform fairness [and human rights] that defines the American national essence and certifies its institutional contribution to human history.”

Much more harm has been done to that vision since 2005.

As for whether there will be enough votes to overturn a Bush veto, Senator Obama can play a useful role in that debate—but as of this writing, he has not.

One other reason I’ll be voting for him in November has to do with the Supreme Court. If there are vacancies in the next presidential term, McCain has said that he’ll nominate justices in the mold of Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. The Roberts Court has already shown itself to be a broken beacon for those concerned with individual freedoms, both in this country and around the world. Obama is essentially a civil libertarian, which means he could play a crucial role in repairing our highest court.