February 19, 2008

Shame On The LA Times

The Los Angeles Times puts itself in the unusual position of scolding John McCain over his opposition to torture, claiming that he betrayed his principles in voting against the legislation sponsored by Dianne Feinstein in the Senate last week. The editorial says McCain should be ashamed for his vote and accuses him of abetting torture, when McCain has good reason to believe that the Feinstein bill does more damage than benefit:

One of John McCain's most admirable traits has been his eloquent opposition to the use of torture against suspected terrorists. During a Republican presidential debate last year in which other candidates tried to out-tough each other by endorsing "enhanced" interrogation methods, McCain recalled: "When I was in Vietnam, one of the things that sustained us as we went -- underwent torture ourselves -- is the knowledge that if we had our positions reversed and we were the captors, we would not impose that kind of treatment on them. It's not about the terrorists; it's about us."

Yes it is, which is why Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) should have voted last week for legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would remove any doubt that CIA interrogators are forbidden to engage in waterboarding and other tactics banned by the Army Field Manual. Instead, McCain squandered some of his moral authority by supporting the Bush administration's position that the CIA should have more leeway than military interrogators. The legislation passed the Senate anyway, as well as the House, but support from McCain, the putative Republican nominee, would have made it harder for President Bush to veto.

McCain was adamant that he wasn't reneging on his belief that waterboarding is illegal under a law he sponsored in 2005 prohibiting "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" of prisoners in U.S. custody. With waterboarding off the table, in McCain's view, there's nothing wrong with allowing CIA interrogators to use other methods not available to the military. Although McCain wasn't specific about what those might be, the Army Field Manual bans subjecting prisoners to sleep deprivation, painful "stress positions" or extreme temperatures, or using dogs to intimidate them.

This is part of the Democratic attack on McCain in its infancy. They want to paint him as a crazed warmonger and have already begun taking his remarks out of context to do so. Now they want to sour his relationship with independents and moderate Democrats by hailing the Feinstein bill and casting him as a villain for opposing it. Unfortunately, it could work, but the truth is somewhat different.

McCain has opposed waterboarding and other forms of torture for years, even while both Democrats and Republicans in Congress tacitly approved it in the aftermath of 9/11. He authored a bill in 2006 that he believes outlawed both without making the mistake of giving our enemies our playbook. Since no acts of waterboarding have occurred after 2003 and the CIA had already banned the practice, there won't be any test cases, but clearly McCain sees the Feinstein bill as superfluous -- and worse.

The idea that the Army Field Manual defines torture is a fallacy on which this entire argument rests. The AFM details what Army interrogators may do, but it doesn't provide the ur-text of non-torture. The AFM, by the nature of our democracy, has to be a public document, but CIA practices should not and do not need to be publicized. By holding the CIA to the confines of the AFM, we take a lot more than waterboarding off the table, including barking dogs, which hardly constitutes torture in any practical or reasonable sense.

If you could save one life by having a dog bark at a detainee, would you do it? For Pete's sake, who wouldn't?

McCain opposed this legislation because it's simply a badly-written bill that hands a training manual to our enemies. It's not just unnecessary, it damages our ability to glean information by limiting our options and allowing our enemies to prepare for American interrogation.


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