Defending John McCain on Torture

A long-time aide argues the Arizona senator did more than anyone else during the Bush years to stop our government from violating its ideals


John McCain's recent op-ed in The Washington Post, in which he rejected the use of torture in the interrogation of captured terrorists, prompted Andrew Cohen to alert readers of The Atlantic to what he considers the senator's "spotty record" on the issue. 

Cohen faults the senator for opposing some but not all torture, and for engaging in a definitional debate about torture rather than providing a denunciation of its immorality that makes clear he objects to all interrogation practices that violate American values and laws. He makes assumptions about the senator's views and purposes, which he describes as "cagey," and concludes the senator's full record reveals "he was against it before he was for it before he was against it," and exposes the senator as, "a tortured soul."

I served on Sen. McCain's staff during the period when he led opposition in Congress to the Bush administration's interrogation policies. I have better informed and fairer view of his position on torture and his intentions in opposing practices he believes are torture. 

Contrary to Cohen's suggestion, the senator's opposition is based in his moral objections to torture, which he is "wholly against ... as a national policy and practice." In every significant statement he has made on the subject, he has made clear he considers all arguments about the efficacy of torture or its military and diplomatic consequences to be of lesser importance than his concern that it represents a terrible betrayal of our moral values. As he has often phrased it, this is not a debate about who they are, but who we are. 

He began his op ed and the speech he made in the Senate that same day by refuting former Attorney General Michael Mukasey's recent assertion that the trail to Osama bin Laden began with disclosures obtained by waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Since bin Laden's death, the defenders of "enhanced interrogation techniques" have suggested that the al Qaeda leader wouldn't have been located had not KSM and others been subjected to waterboarding and other abuses. 

McCain did not focus his objections to torture on KSM and waterboarding. He simply chose to address the efficacy argument first. He concluded, as he always does, by making a full throated moral argument against all use of torture. And it is his moral objection that was and remains the first principle of his opposition to all torture. 

Many in the human rights community played an invaluable role in opposition to the Bush administration's detainee policies. Sen. McCain and his staff worked closely with many of them, both in his effort to pass the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA) in 2005, and in his subsequent effort to strengthen the War Crimes Act in his negotiations with Bush administration officials on the Military Commissions Act (MTA) in 2006. Their forceful advocacy of American values was indispensible to ending those policies. And I think most of them would agree so was Sen. McCain's. They and he helped shape the debate, influence public opinion, and pressure Congress and the administration. But the senator had an additional responsibility as a lawmaker: to help write and pass laws that would prevent the use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment on anyone held in U.S. custody.

Cohen claims that McCain helped make the debate about torture a definitional one rather than a moral one. If I understand him correctly, he believes the very act of entering into negotiations with the Bush administration to define torture undermined or betrayed the moral argument against it.

Although I understand why advocates outside government often resent the limitations and compromises inherent in legislating, I am puzzled by Cohen's contention that "Much of the debate over torture is 'definitional' (rather than, say, 'moral') because politicians like Sen. McCain have made it so. Definitions famously allow for leeway, after all, morality famously does not." I'd like to know how Cohen believes the senator could have opposed and tried to stop morally objectionable policies in an administration that disputed their immorality and asserted their legality by means other than defining what is morally objectionable and unlawful. 

Cohen believes the only moral course was to insist on using the Army Field Manual's prescriptions for treating detainees. Those prescriptions, too, are definitional. They define what is permissible, and, thus, implicitly, what is morally unobjectionable. In negotiations over the MCA, Sen. McCain sought to define what is morally objectionable and not permissible. He hardly had a choice. In 2006, the debate was entirely about definitions, and the Bush Administration had enough support in Congress to prevent McCain or anyone from compelling it to impose the Army Field Manual's restrictions on CIA interrogators. 

The Supreme Court had decided in the Hamdan case that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions applied to all enemy detainees -- and so all interrogation techniques had to comply with it. In order to retain the ability to use the most abusive practices, the Bush administration sought to redefine Common Article 3 in law, and dilute its protections. Before any other member of Congress objected, the Senator announced he would oppose any weakening of the Geneva Conventions. He said at the time that he'd risk his presidential ambitions in order to stop the redefinition of Common Article 3. And he did.

It was clear in 2006 that the administration was going to get a Military Commissions Act. The senator worked hard to ensure it wouldn't get an MCA that weakened the Geneva Conventions (and the War Crimes Act, which criminalizes grave breaches of Common Article 3). McCain passed through the Senate Armed Services Committee legislation that persuaded the administration to negotiate. 

The most important concessions he achieved in long and difficult negotiations with the Bush administration, were his amendments to the War Crimes Act. Of those, the hardest was the provision that defined as a grave breach of Common Article 3 any treatment that caused the subject "serious, but non transitory mental harm, (which need not be prolonged)." The defenders of "enhanced interrogation techniques" had insisted that mental harm would have to be severe and prolonged to be illegal. 

Cohen would assert this accomplishment could have led to nothing more than a debate over what "serious" and "prolonged" and "non-transitory" mean. But it was clear to Bush administration officials, including Stephen Hadley and Steven Bradbury, who conceded to the senator that the definitions of prosecutable breaches of Common Article 3 had been strengthened and not weakened, and waterboarding and other procedures as brutal or nearly as brutal were now indisputably grave breaches and punishable as war crimes. That's why they asked and the senator agreed that the new definition not be retroactive to protect from prosecution those who used them prior to enactment of the MCA.

That concession and the senator's agreement to allow the CIA to continue interrogating detainees without limiting them strictly to Army Field Manual's regulations were the reasons some human rights advocates objected to the MCA. The senator believes he helped prevent abuses like waterboarding or putting a power drill to a detainee's head, which Cohen refers to, or any practice that would cause serious and not prolonged mental or physical suffering. He stood by the agreement and its compromises when Sen. Diane Feinstein offered legislation to restrict all interrogations to the limits defined in the Army Field Manual, which everyone knew would be vetoed by the Bush Administration -- and was. 

You can disagree that his accomplishment justified the compromises he made. You can argue they neglected to make impermissible other morally objectionable practices. He doesn't believe they did, nor do I. You can claim that restricting all interrogations to the procedures permitted in the Army Field Manual would have offered greater assurance that all objectionable policies would end, even though it required a change in administrations to make that happen. Every lawmaker must accept that the compromises required to pass legislation will always invite criticism by those who have the luxury of remaining untainted by practical considerations that are the burden of those who must try to change things through legislation in a divided government. 

I don't believe, however, the senator should have his intentions and position maligned with the false claim he hasn't always objected to torture. That's a cheap shot, and certainly undeserved. The senator's objections are as consistent and as deep as Cohen's and longer-standing. More importantly, in the years in question, John McCain did more than Andrew Cohen, or anyone else I can think of, to stop our government from continuing to violate the ideals that are our greatest strength and his lifelong cause.

Image credit: Kevin Lamarque (Reuters).

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