Political Animal


May 12, 2011 1:45 PM McCain steps up on torture

By Steve Benen

For all of the many disappointments associated with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over the last several years, it’s heartening to see him step up in condemning torture. The principal Republican talking point last week, the wake of Osama bin Laden’s demise, was that Bush-era torture policies were responsible, which makes the Obama administration — the folks who actually killed the al Qaeda leader — on the wrong side of the policy.

In a Washington Post op-ed, McCain rejects his party’s favorite argument.

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.

Of particular interest, McCain notes comments made by Bush’s former attorney general, Michael Mukasey, who claimed waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced the first grain of intelligence that got the OBL ball rolling. The senator set the record straight, calling Mukasey’s claim “false.”

I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.

In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information.

McCain followed this up this morning, with a 20-minute speech on the Senate floor, condemning torture, and explaining that the “debate,” such as it is, is fundamentally “about morality. What is at stake here it the very idea of America.”

Good for him.

I’ll look forward to Liz Cheney questioning his patriotism.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • c u n d gulag on May 12, 2011 1:53 PM:

    2000 Mac is back!!! *

    Liz Cheney - aka, "Daddies Little Deferment," will say that McCain was tortured by Obama to say that. I mean, 'enhanced interogatted,' obviously.

    *Not that he was really a Maverick back then, but this is better than what we've seen from him since 2004.

  • Trollop on May 12, 2011 1:55 PM:

    I have no idea what he's talking about; John McCain has been torturing me since 1998..

  • Danp on May 12, 2011 1:58 PM:

    Panetta's quote is quite newsworthy. The McCain part - well, that's just another "who's he mad at today?" story. Sorry, but I'd rather hear baseless speculation on who Trig's father is.

  • Holmes on May 12, 2011 1:58 PM:

    From a purely cynical point of view, McCain could really stick it to the Bushies on torture. They really screwed him in 2000, and this is a very good opportunity for some revenge, with the added bonus of taking the morally right position.

  • ManOutOfTime on May 12, 2011 2:01 PM:

    @Trollop - LOL.

    An Op-Ed in the WaPo with which I agree? and it's written by John McCain? I will take my umbrella outside with me, for fear of flying pigs ...

  • MattF on May 12, 2011 2:07 PM:

    Well, good for McCain.

  • T2 on May 12, 2011 2:08 PM:

    by this time tomorrow, McOld might say torture helped.....that's the problem with him...he is a blow-hard and grandstander and major flip-flopper. From the start, all agencies reported that information on Bin Laden was not received by torture. That angle was pure fabrication from members of the Bush Admin (i.e. - lies)

  • SW on May 12, 2011 2:14 PM:

    I've been wondering why he at this late stage of his life he seems so intent on carrying water for the people who raped him in South Carolina.

    And why in god's name a man who was actually tortured as a POW could stand aside while he watched his own country descend into that moral abyss.

    Good for John McCain. It is never too late for redemption. It is never too late to come back to the human race. Now how about the climate change stuff?

  • j on May 12, 2011 2:26 PM:

    Better late than never, thank you John McCain for being a reasonable voice - at last!
    Perhaps McCain is thinking about his legacy, he will probably not run again for the senate and wants to regain his soul.

  • Jim H on May 12, 2011 2:37 PM:

    Isn't it kind of sad that we are all applauding someone's (anyone's) rejection of torture on moral grounds? Shouldn't that be the default? sigh...

    rm -rf /bin/laden

  • wheresthebeef on May 12, 2011 3:05 PM:

    McCain's point about torture being fundamentally "about morality" is spot on, and he deserves perhaps more credit for that than for making the long-since proven point that it doesn't work. When we allow ourselves to get into a discussion of torture's efficacy, we once agan allow the opposition to frame the topic.

  • jjm on May 12, 2011 3:40 PM:

    It's time for a high profile Republican like McCain to pull the plug on the 'torture works' theme of the Republicans today.

    And the precise citation from Panetta is worth sending out over and over again on the internet.

  • Jim Pharo on May 12, 2011 3:58 PM:

    This is how the myth of McCain is built and maintained. I'm sure he has also come out in favor of torture, and his voting record is likely pro-torture as well.

    He's a gasbag, a hack. There's a reason why this third-generation scion of Navy royalty was drummed out...

  • Grumpy on May 12, 2011 3:59 PM:

    That sound you hear is McCain's pea-sized integrity rattling inside his hollow body.

  • Kiweagle on May 12, 2011 4:08 PM:

    I almost spat out my coffee when I read this nice little homage to McCain's stand against waterboarding which is, to use Southern parlance: "All hat and no cattle".

    When the Dems passed legislation in both houses of congress to ban waterboarding by restricting methods of interrogation used by the CIA to those listed in the Army Field Manual, he publicly supported Bush's veto of that legislation.

    "McCain is trying to have it both ways. He claims the CIA should not use cruel or unusual interrogations, but he is defending Bush's veto, a clear approval of waterboarding."

  • JS on May 12, 2011 5:06 PM:

    I thought there was a corollary to IOKIYAR which states that a Republican is allowed to go off message on an issue that they have personally suffered from. Such as McCain being tortured, he's allowed to speak out against it. Another example would be Mary Cheney.

  • Rathskeller on May 12, 2011 5:30 PM:

    No one should congratulate a weather-vane for pointing in a new direction. It's a nice little piece that his staffer wrote, but McCain himself is a conscience-free hypocrite, on everything, but specifically on the issue of torture.

    McCain is saying today what he thinks will benefit him today. He'll do the same thing tomorrow.

  • exlibra on May 12, 2011 7:39 PM:

    Iíll look forward to Liz Cheney questioning his patriotism. -- Steve Benen

    She doesn't have to question his patriotism, just his common sense. The poor guy is so old and confused, he took Panetta's lie as truth...

    Now, let's see what captcha has to offer. "orandel and". So close (to an orange) but still no cigar...

  • Pyre on May 12, 2011 8:29 PM:

    Jim H, although I agree it should be the default position, I will still happily cheer the rejection of torture -- even more so because it has not always been the default position.

    And on that topic... Steve Benen, perhaps you should take up the matter with your fellow WaMo writer Peter Moskos, who advocates flogging as a "humane" practice.

  • cwolf on May 12, 2011 8:29 PM:

    @SW on May 12, 2011 2:14 PM:
    who said,
    It is never too late for redemption.

    I think I once believed that but,
    now I'm weary of what amounts to self-serving
    & sanctimonious deathbed conversions.
    AFAIC, They all amount to too little too late

    Eisenhower on the Military Industrial Complex,
    Wallace on Civil Rights,
    Blackmun on Capital Punishment,
    McCain on Torture,

    After their damage is done they see the light?
    BS,,, Fuck 'em all.

    I can't recall a single one of these Redemptions
    that smells better than shit.

  • Sam on May 12, 2011 9:37 PM:

    I have a feeling that this may be the one weekend that McCain is NOT invited on the Sunday shows.

  • smartalek on May 12, 2011 10:26 PM:

    "I have a feeling that this may be the one weekend that McCain is NOT invited on the Sunday shows."

    And Sam wins the thread, and maybe the day.
    There's an old Jewish joke, which I will spare you, except to share that the punchline is, "And you, too, are right!"
    Call me an unrealistic dreamer and a sap, but cogent as I find the arguments of those who point out (correctly) that McCain has had so many different positions in such a short time that it's no longer possible to even distinguish his flips or flops from flaps, I'm gonna hold out at least some hope that this time he really means it.
    I'm pretty big on the redemption thing, and I'd rather have him with us on as much as possible than against us.
    And though we won't know for sure til it happens (or not) it is not entirely inconceivable that he's not undergoing a deathbed conversion, but might actually be around to contribute something useful to our country, our citizens, and the world -- as he has, on some occasions, done in the past.

  • Cha on May 16, 2011 7:43 PM:

    Liz Cheney is a lying torturemonger and I look forward to her just shutting the fuck up.

    @Sam..I had the same thought about this Sunday not being one of McCain's facetimes on gopropaganda torture pimping Sundays.