McCain Puts Torture Debate To Rest, But Flunks Accountability

May 13, 2011

© Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In an op-ed published yesterday in the Washington Post former Republican Presidential candidate and current senior Senator from Arizona, John McCain, effectively put the efficacy of torture debate to bed.

McCain, who was tortured repeatedly by the North Vietnamese as a Prisoner of War, compellingly referenced his own experience of undergoing coercive interrogation noting 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.”

It is pretty hard to argue the toss with someone who has actually been through it for real.

Moreover, unlike Messers Thiessen, Hayden and Mukasey, rather than rushing into print, Senator McCain also took the time to establish the facts about the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout – indeed, in doing so, he all but called the former Bush administration Attorney General a liar:

“Michael Mukasey recently claimed that “the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information — including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.” That is 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. 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.”

There doesn’t really seem to be much more to say. Torture is morally reprehensible, it is one of the most universally reviled of all criminal acts, it is ineffective, and it is even counterproductive. Remind me again, why we are still having this conversation?

Unfortunately, as Amy Davidson eloquently noted in her New Yorker blog, Senator McCain’s op-ed did not stop there. The senator also addressed the question of accountability commenting that “those who approved and employed these practices were dedicated to protecting Americans” and concluding that the purity of their patriotic intent should shield them from the law.

The old patriotic saw ‘my country right or wrong’ is simply not compatible with the rule of law – or liberal democracy. We may pledge allegiance to the flag but we also pledge to stand for liberty and justice for all. Torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is illegal under the United States Code. You don’t get a free pass because you profess to love your country.

There is only one way to ensure that torture never again becomes part of US government policy and that is to prosecute those who broke the law by ordering it and carrying it out. Otherwise, every time the going gets tough some yahoo with the best of intentions is going to reach for the pliers.