I have to start here by repeating a caveat, best stated by Esquire‘s Charles Pierce:
“It has been fashionable for a while now to place McCain somehow above politics; the “maverick” thing was based on a sparse list of examples. There was the campaign finance law that he championed with Russ Feingold, a law that lies now in ruins because of judges for whom John McCain loyally voted. He campaigned vigorously to give the president a line-item veto until a Supreme Court led by William Rehnquist explained forcefully that such a measure was hilariously unconstitutional. He thoroughly supported Reagan’s adventurism in Central America, was a protege of Henry Kissinger, got snagged in the Keating 5 corruption and became a campaign-finance reformer only after skating on that episode more cleanly than the other four miscreants, one of whom was John Glenn. He was a reliable Republican vote on every nomination and every policy that evidenced the Republican Party’s slow slide into madness and chaos and he was unable and not a talented enough politician to stop it.
All true, sadly. Yet Pierce, who differed sharply with McCain on these matters, insists that he liked and admired the senator until the end, and misses him now.
I think I’m in much the same boat, though I never actually met him, which Pierce did. Yet if ever my nostalgia for McCain gets too fulsome, I pray a loyal friend will tiptoe up and whisper in one ear, “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull?”
The reflexive answer “Lipstick,” always snaps me out of it.
Nevertheless, McCain was a consistent maverick on one issue, in which I was total agreement with him, except in one particular. That issue is torture.
When McCain ran for president in 2007-08 he sold out many good things he had once stood for, in the manic effort to scramble up the greased pole to the Oval Office window. But as the Politifact checkers later pointed out, he didn’t waver on torture in his climb.
“Anyone who knows what waterboarding is could not be unsure. It is a horrible torture technique used by Pol Pot and being used on Buddhist monks as we speak,” McCain said after a campaign stop in Iowa in October 2007.
“People who have worn the uniform and had the experience know that this is a terrible and odious practice and should never be condoned in the U.S. We are a better nation than that.”
At a Republican debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, in November 2007, McCain again was clear in his conviction that waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques are in violation of the Geneva Convention, “it’s in violation of existing law.”
“And again, I would hope that we would understand, my friends, that life is not 24 and Jack Bauer. Life is interrogation techniques which are humane and yet effective,” McCain said. “And I just came back from visiting a prison in Iraq. The Army general there said that techniques under the Army Field Manual are working and working effectively, and he didn’t think they need to do anything else.
“My friends, this is what America is all about. This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America.” . . .
McCain continued to speak unequivocally in opposition to torture, as he did in a foreign policy speech in March .
“America must be a model citizen if we want others to look to us as a model,” McCain said. “How we behave at home affects how we are perceived abroad. We must fight the terrorists and at the same time defend the rights that are the foundation of our society. We can’t torture or treat inhumanely suspected terrorists we have captured.”
I’ll slide past McCain’s legislative work on the issue: he did his best, but the ban he once managed to get passed was less than total, and anyway was cut down like a sleeping baby in a drone strike as soon as it reached the Bush-Cheney White House.
But he kept raising his voice. Shortly after Osama Bin Ladin was killed in 2011, McCain took to the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post.
He skewered the bogus claims that the raid proved the Bush-Cheney tortures had “worked” to smoke Bin Ladin out, and reminded readers that what was at stake was more than score-settling:
“Osama bin Laden’s welcome death has ignited debate over whether the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques used on enemy prisoners were instrumental in locating bin Laden, and whether they are a justifiable means for gathering intelligence.
Much of this debate is a definitional one: whether any or all of these methods constitute torture. I believe some of them
do, especially waterboarding, which is a mock execution and thus an exquisite form of torture. As such, they are prohibited by American laws and values, and I oppose them. . . .
“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.
Mistreatment of enemy prisoners endangers our own troops, who might someday be held captive. While some enemies, and al-Qaeda surely, will never be bound by the principle of reciprocity, we should have concern for those Americans captured by more conventional enemies, if not in this war then in the next. . . .
I don’t mourn the loss of any terrorist’s life. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we confuse or encourage those who fight this war for us to forget that best sense of ourselves.”
McCain knew this “from personal experience.” He didn’t need to give more detail.
But the demise of the “black sites” was followed by an all-out CIA-backed campaign to cover their tracks and get rid of the evidence. Damning videotapes of torture sessions were destroyed. And then an even bigger target surfaced: in March 2009, the Senate Select Committee began an exhaustive investigation of CIA records, reviewing millions of pages, to separate fact from fiction and develop a reliable record.
The Agency pulled out all the stops to shut down the probe, and when that failed, their Republican minions on the Committee tried to confiscate all the copies. The main report (6000 or so pages) is still secret, but a 600-page “Executive Summary” (minus many blackout “redactions”) was released in December 2014.
Even with its many large black holes, the summary made hair-raising, stomach-churning reading. (Full text of the redacted summary is online here.)
McCain was interviewed about it on Face The Nation by CBS reporter Bob Schieffer. Asked about the continuing efforts to suppress it, he was straightforward:
“But what we need to do is come clean; we move forward and we vow never to do it again. That’s what we did after Abu Ghraib and that’s what we’ve done after other times in our history. We’re not a perfect nation, but we are a nation that acknowledges our mistakes and we move forward. And we are not going to be inhumane.”
You can’t claim that tying someone to the floor and have them freeze to death is not torture. You can’t say 183 times someone is waterboarded.
And, by the way, on waterboarding, it began with the Spanish Inquisition. We — it was done during the Philippines War. We tried and hung Japanese war criminals for waterboarding Americans in World War II. . . .
But, Bob, could I just say — it’s not about them; it’s about us. It’s about us, what we were, what we are and what we — and what we should be. And that’s a nation that does not engage in these kinds of violations of the fundamental basic human rights that we guaranteed when we declared our independence.
Despite the shocking revelations of the report, the pro-torture attitudes of the incoming administration just have cast a deepening shadow over McCain’s final months. They seemed to be spreading like, well, a rapidly metastasizing tumor.
For torture opponents, another major shock came last spring, when formerly secret CIA agent Gina Haspel was named to be head of the CIA. As she (briefly) “came in from the cold,” it was disclosed that she had actually run one of the “black sites,” and very likely had overseen torture sessions. And it turned out Haspel was also up to her eyes in the destruction of the incriminating videotapes.
Nevertheless, a spineless Senate moved toward confirmation. In the process Haspel had a major stroke of luck: she was spared a showdown with the Senate’s most visible and respected torture opponent. One can only imagine what a confrontation that might have been: Haspel, impassive, well-shielded by kevlar secrecy and talking points, versus a legendary torture survivor.
Still, the confrontation was not wholly imaginary; it did happen, but was epistolary: McCain, losing one last medical battle, took time to write a lengthy and trenchant letter to Haspel, which was filled with tough observations and demanding questions. Here are a few:
“These techniques included the practice of waterboarding, forced nudity and humiliation, facial and abdominal slapping, dietary manipulation, stress positions, cramped confinement, striking, and more than 48 hours of sleep deprivation. We now know that these techniques not only failed to deliver actionable intelligence, but actually produced false and misleading information. Most importantly, the use of torture compromised our values, stained our national honor, and threatened our historical reputation. . . .
As you know, many detainees under the custody of the CIA in the wake of the September 11th attacks were subjected to waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In just one case, a Libyan detainee and his pregnant wife were rendered to a foreign country, where the woman was bound, gagged, and photographed naked as several American intelligence officers watched.
Do you believe actions like these were justified, and do you believe they produced actionable intelligence?
What is your assessment today of the effectiveness of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and their impact on the United States’ moral standing in the world?
It is not known if McCain ever got replies to these and other questions in the letter. Haspel was confirmed by the Senate as CIA Director on April 17, 2018. McCain was in Arizona, undergoing treatment, and did not vote. The epic confrontation was muffled and squirreled away in an online footnote.
For the moment, it would seem that McCain’s long crusade against U.S. government torture has got no further than his other, likewise now-demolished effort to reform and limit big money in political campaigns: the architects and enablers of official torture are skating toward retirement under a so-far leakproof umbrella of impunity; one of them now commands the CIA; a true friend of eternal detention seems headed for a majority-making Supreme Court seat; and in the White House an itchy finger could loose new tortures as easily as sending out a tweet.
McCain, I’m sorry to say, supported that get-out-of-jail-free card for our torturers. Maybe he thought it was the only way to get a public accounting of the debacle; or maybe actual accountability would have snagged too many of his capitol cronies. For me that decision, one also advanced by Barack Obama (“look forward and not back”), is up at the pinnacle of the Capitol Hall of Shame, next to the refusal to prosecute any of the banksters after they crashed the economy and ruined millions of lives.
But there it all is. And, oh yeah, the Border Wall is yet to receive a nickel; and Puerto Rico is still buried in post-hurricane debris. But Guantanamo is being massively refurbished and expanded, presumably to be ready for the next big batch (batches?) of internees. (And new black sites? Who knows?)
Yet McCain’s voice still echoes, at least for me. Especially this one brief outburst, when he was at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia on November 19, 2016. That was just a few days after what I still (and I suspect he likewise did) call The Earthquake. McCain defiantly insisted that the United States will not engage in torture under any circumstances.
“I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do. We will not waterboard . . .We will not do it. . . .What does it say about America if we’re going to inflict torture on people?”
What does it say, sir?
It says to me we’re now living in a country where your voice on this matter has departed from among us. And it says the cloud that shadowed your last days has become noticeably deeper. Just since Saturday, August 25.
More about torture and efforts to end it here: