Tuesday, December 13, 2005

McCain's Defining Moment

Published on Tuesday, December 13, 2005
by Ray McGovern

Sen. John McCain and his Senate colleagues have given Congress a chance to redeem itself in a small but significant way for its craven abdication of responsibility three years ago, when it handed the president what Sen. Robert Byrd warned would be a "blank check" for war on Iraq.

With the help of now-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have stretched that blank check to include authorization for torturing detainees by CIA and U.S. military personnel.  McCain, himself a victim of torture in Vietnam, is trying to bring the U.S. into compliance with international norms, while the Bush administration is trying desperately to leave the door open for CIA interrogators to act beyond those norms without threat of prosecution.

McCain has tacked onto the defense authorization and defense appropriation bills an amendment that would require Defense Department personnel to observe the strictures in the Army Field Manual for Intelligence Interrogation.  As for CIA and other non-defense department personnel, the amendment would prohibit "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of detainees "regardless of nationality or physical location."  Cheney has been waging an open campaign to defeat or alter the amendment.  He lost the first round when, despite Herculean efforts on his part, 89 senators joined McCain in voting for it.

This presents a direct challenge to Cheney and to President George W. Bush. The House versions of the defense bills do not include the McCain language, so the final agreement on the torture amendment is now in the hands of conferees from the House and the Senate working to resolve differences between the bills. Yesterday, President Bush said he was "confident" that agreement could be reached with McCain, but Democratic Sen. Carl Levin said the House so far has refused to accept McCain's language and that this was "unacceptable" to the Senate.

Supporters of the Cheney school of thought have been taking to the airwaves using the bogus "ticking-bomb doomsday scenario" rationale to, well, rationalize torture.  And this seems to be having some impact.  According to an AP-Ipsos poll conducted in late November, 61 percent of Americans surveyed believe torture is justified at least on rare occasions; only 36 percent said it can never be justified.  A January 2005 poll conducted by Poltronics involving more than 2,000 telephone interviews found that 53 percent of Americans thought some torture is acceptable, with 37 percent opposed.  That poll also found that 82 percent of FOX News Channel viewers said that torture is acceptable in "a wide range" of situations.

And so, incredible though it may seem, torture survivor McCain runs the risk of appearing soft on torture with the Republican base, whose support he will need if he hopes to win the Republican nomination in 2008.  Accordingly, despite the strong support he enjoys among Senate colleagues and despite his uncompromising stance until now, there seems a good chance that McCain will acquiesce in compromise wording. That would enable the administration to assure CIA and contract interrogators that they will enjoy legal protection if they keep "the gloves off," as erstwhile CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black described the CIA's approach post 9/11.

"Enhanced interrogation techniques" certainly came in handy as the Bush team was promoting the war in Iraq and the "war on terror," but their use has only made the problem worse. We now know, for example, that the bogus information included in President Bush's October 2002 speech—just three days before Congress voted on the war—about Iraq training Al Qaeda operatives in explosives and chemical weapons was extracted from the captive Ibn Al Shaykh Al Libi by Egyptian interrogators to whom we "rendered" him.  Al Libi has since recanted, claiming his statements were coerced. 

And when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft needed to advertise a success in the "war on terrorism," José Padilla was produced on the basis of the testimony of none other than 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whose interrogation included water-boarding.  Padilla's "dirty bomb" charge was dropped after he spent more than three and a half years in prison.

While I admire Sen. McCain for taking a stand, even he seems to be pulling his punches. It strikes me as odd, for example, that he cites damage to the U.S. image abroad as the primary reason why torture should be banned.  Our tarnished image is a serious problem, but it is, in my view, among the least compelling of a long list of reasons to throw torture out of our national security toolbox.  Others that come to mind, in ascending order of importance, are:

  • Torture puts our own troops, as well as those of other countries, in jeopardy of "reciprocal" treatment.
  • Torture brutalizes not only the victim but also the brutalizer.  (Talk, as I have, to those who took part in, or merely witnessed, torture in Iraq or Afghanistan.)
  • Information acquired by torture is notoriously unreliable. Experienced interrogators know that torture is as likely to yield misinformation as accurate information, since torture victims will say anything to stop the pain. In the past, torture fell into disuse primarily because it did not work.

But above all these, torture is morally wrong. It inhabits the same category as slavery, genocide, rape, incest—always, intrinsically wrong. Civilized societies have long opposed torture since it is widely recognized as an intolerable affront to the inherent human right to physical integrity and personal dignity. That is why there are so many laws against torture. It is not wrong because it is illegal; it is illegal because it is wrong.

And that undermines any legitimacy of the moderate position on torture, such as that offered by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former military lawyer. Sen. Graham has suggested that the "problem" is to find a way to protect interrogators who go too far from legal prosecution.  To this non-lawyer, at least, it does not seem possible to square this circle. 

On the contrary. The use of torture before and after the invasion of Iraq points to a much larger crime. The Bush administration's willful deception of the American people and Congress into backing the invasion of Iraq and their conduct of the war since has revealed that the war in Iraq is, pure and simple, a war of aggression. The post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal, largely a creature of the United States, declared:

"To initiate a war of aggression...is the supreme international crime differing from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called the war illegal, as have the International Commission of Jurists and the preponderance of legal experts around the world. As for the "accumulated evil of the whole," torture comes immediately to mind.  There is no getting around it. Torture is a war crime; a crime against humanity.

Any policy that relies on torture for success has lost the battle for hearts and minds before it even begins.  Last week, 33 of us retired intelligence officers sent a letter to Sen. McCain expressing strong support for his amendment and reminding him of this inexorable fact. "Thankfully," we said, "the choice between our values and success against the terrorist enemy is a false one.  We must not be seduced by the fiction that adherence to our ideals is what stands between our great nation and the security it deserves."

Ray McGovern works for Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He was a CIA analyst for 27 years and his responsibilities included preparing and briefing the PDB. He is now on the steering group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (ViPS).

© 2005 Tom Engelhardt


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