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By Joe Campbell
September 10th, 2008

[Image by SoggyDan licensed under Creative Commons.]

On September 16, 2005 a captain in the army wrote a letter to Senator John McCain. The captain had commanded troops in Iraq and witnessed what he described as “a wide range of abuses [of American-held prisoners] including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment.” He attempted to determine what standards governed the treatment of detainees as he reported these abuses up the chain of command – but was given no guidance. He had written to many military and political officials, informing them of what was going on and asking for guidance, despite being told by the military brass that he was committing career suicide. He wrote letters to anyone he thought might be able to help him – but no one responded.

Finally, on Finally, on September 16, 2006, this captain wrote a letter to Senator John McCain. The letter concluded:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. 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. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.” [My emphasis.]

John McCain was so moved by this letter that he pushed for it to be published in the Washington Post, began drafting legislation to stop America from torturing it’s prisoners, and began publicly pushing the Bush administration on the issue in the press. On November 4, 2005, in the middle of this fight Senator John McCain issued a sober call for to reform our intelligence-gathering and

What should also be obvious is that the intelligence we collect must be reliable and acquired humanely, under clear standards understood by all our fighting men and women. To do differently not only offends our values as Americans, but undermines our war effort, because abuse of prisoners harms – not helps – us in the war on terror. First, subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence, because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop. Second, mistreatment of our prisoners endangers U.S. troops who might be captured by the enemy – if not in this war, then in the next. And third, prisoner abuses exact on us a terrible toll in the war of ideas, because inevitably these abuses become public. When they do, the cruel actions of a few darken the reputation of our country in the eyes of millions. American values should win against all others in any war of ideas, and we can’t let prisoner abuse tarnish our image.

Senator McCain concluded his remarks by echoing the army captain:

We should do it not because we wish to coddle terrorists. We should do it not because we view them as anything but evil and terrible. We should do it, Mr. President, because we are Americans, and because we hold ourselves to humane standards of treatment of people no matter how evil or terrible they may be. America stands for a moral mission, one of freedom and democracy and human rights at home and abroad. We are better than these terrorists, and we will we win. I have said it before but it bears repeating: The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away. [My emphasis.]

Responding to criticisms that he was being overly moralistic in attempting to prohibit Americans from torturing, McCain told George Stephanopoulos said:

In that million-to-one situation, then the President of the United States would authorize and then take responsibility for it

Despite heavy criticism from the right-wing, McCain had proposed what became known as the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment (and later the Detainee Treatment Act.)1 The right-wing excoriated McCain for leaving America defenseless and the Bush administration pleaded with McCain to amend the language of his amendment, threatening to veto any measure that impinged on the president’s authority to torture people. Under great pressure, McCain limited the bill’s specific language to only cover the military, leaving out the CIA. Although the bill called for an end to all torture of prisoners by Americans, it only gave specific and binding direction to the military. Further undermining the anti-torture provisions, President Bush issued a signing statement that suggested the law violated the Constitution and that it should not be considered binding.

In 2006, the Bush administration began to push for a bill that concerned the issue of torture. McCain initially requested that the bill include the explicit protections of the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration conceded to McCain’s requests and included these protections, but undermined this passage with a provision that gave the president authority to determine what acts were consistent with and inconsistent with the Geneva Conventions. Again, McCain’s stand against torture won him plaudits, but only served to authorize the president’s power to use whatever methods he personally deemed “not torture”.

In February 2008, a number of top Democrats on the Intelligence Committee became concerned that the CIA was continuing to torture prisoners despite assurances by the administration to McCain that they had stopped those practices due to McCain’s public pressure. The Democrats sought to close the loophole left by the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment, and reaching out to McCain for support, they were surprised to be rebuffed.

McCain explained his opposition to what became known as the Feinstein Amendment, saying that the current law was sufficiently clear and that:

We always supported allowing the CIA to use extra measures…

He continued to repeat his claim that:

I obviously don’t want to torture any prisoners.

Yet, despite reports of ongoing torture, he refused to back a law with teeth that would actually prevent torture. His first two attempts had been considered noble failures by human rights activists who worked with Senator McCain. They admired him for standing up to the Bush administration and calling on America to be better – and even if he hadn’t actually accomplished what he had set out to do. Now – with a Democratic Congress ready to push the issue and actually pass an enforceable law ending official American torture, McCain balked. He even suggested the president veto the bill if it was passed. Such was the moral authority he had built up on the issue that his standing against the amendment effectively quashed it.

What does it say about a man’s character that he hears the call of injustice and composes a powerful defense of American values and becomes the public face of opposition to torture – and then he accepts a compromise that gives him only a symbolic victory? And then, given another chance to put an end to this practice he has condemned in no uncertain terms, he again mounts a public defense and accepts a symbolic victory that reinforces the position he has condemend? And then, given a chance to support a bill that would truly end torture, he opposes it and encourages the president to veto it? His words promise so much more than his deeds deliver.2

While Senator John McCain was the only official Captain Ian Fishback reached out to that responded to his call for leadership, McCain failed the test Captain Fishback put to him. McCain chose to “sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security” and  give up some part “of the idea that is America.” He accepted plaudits and symbolic victories, but when given the chance to act on his fine words and professed ideals, he declined.

I admired the McCain who fought against torture when no other Republican would. I admired him despite the compromises he made. I could not admire the way he declined to back up his words once the opportunity was given to him.

Both the liberal law professor Glenn Greenwald and the conservative columnist Andrew C. McCarthy use the same word to describe McCain’s opposition to torture: “grandstanding.”

N.B. This post was written in the midst of an obviously contentious election campaign – one in which I had strongly considered supporting John McCain but after careful evaluation, had come to the conclusion that Barack Obama was the only candidate suited to our current challenges. While I stand by the content of the post, in retrospect, the tone is a bit overheated. That said – the fact that McCain would backtrack on this issue that was at the core of his reputation for moral authority is a testament to how this issue has become one of the issues in the new “culture war” – this one over national security. 

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  1. All told, the position outlined and taken by McCain to this point is a serious one – and one which I mainly agree with. []
  2. As with Georgia. []