Thank You, John McCain

By James Fallows

(Please see UPDATE below.) I am late to this topic, because of travel, but on this sort of thing better late than not at all. And I wanted to get it on the record while it still concerns events "today":

MCainNixon.jpgCongratulations to Sen. John McCain for his brave op-ed in the Washington Post today (a) reasserting his long-standing view* that torture is wrong, illegal, and un-American, and (b) arguing, contrary to many of his recent political allies, that torture had not been the key to breaking the bin Laden case.

Maybe it's not surprising that a man who himself has been tortured** thinks this is bad practice. But the argument has to have weight, coming from McCain -- especially his testimony about why information extracted this way is so often unreliable: People will say whatever they think will stop the pain. And it's a fight that McCain didn't have to pick at this point, considering the way he has increasingly positioned and comported himself since his bitter loss on the largest political stage in 2008.

As he said, in response to triumphalist claims that waterboarding produced the crucial info:

>>In fact, the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator -- none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee -- information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti's real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden -- was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.

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.<<

Let's hope this is an omen for the way John McCain wants to position and comport himself in this next phase of his public life.
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If you'd like to read the other side, from the former Bush aide who has resolutely defended the Bush Administration's torture record, you can do it here.

* UPDATE: In a post today on the Atlantic's site, Andrew Cohen argues that McCain's past opposition to torture is spottier and more selective than I had assumed. Very much worth reading. He does agree, and I still say, that this latest statement is very welcome.

**For the record, the photo, from Getty Images, is of the young John McCain meeting Richard Nixon at a reception for released prisoners of war, in 1973.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/thank-you-john-mccain/238843/