06/25/2008 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Torture Backslide

Today, former general counsel to the Navy Alberto Mora joined with torture survivors, former cabinet officials, and members of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to ask that the next president of the United States issue an executive order explicitly requiring all government agencies, including the CIA, to abstain from torture and mistreatment of "prisoners captured in the battle against terrorism." Mora, as you may remember, was the sole internal critic of the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogations at Guantanamo Bay. Unfortunately, questions remain as to whether Senator John McCain would welcome such an effort.

I remember clearly the day I first learned of McCain's own horrific experience as a victim of torture. I was driving through the Pittsburgh suburbs on a hot summer afternoon in 1999 listening to a radio interview in which he recounted with detail a story of his mistreatment at the hands of the North Vietnamese Army. John McCain immediately impressed me -- as he did many others -- as a man of great moral conviction. It seemed that his experience in that POW camp had taught him much about himself, his comrades, his captors, and the importance of human life itself. It soon emerged as an essential part of his political identity.

The John McCain I heard on the radio that day was the John McCain who believed that torture is always morally wrong. June being Torture Awareness Month, it seems a fitting occasion to re-examine Senator McCain's record on the issue.

Before McCain gave up his reform-minded maverick image by sidling up to the now-radioactive George W. Bush and the "agent of intolerance" Pastor John Hagee, he garnered much praise by criticizing the administration's use of torture and by leading the Senate in opposing Dick Cheney's efforts to exempt the U.S. military from torture prohibitions. But more recently, his record on torture has started to slip.

Just this month, Senator McCain criticized a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing detainees to challenge in an impartial court of law their imprisonment and secret evidence being used against them. Due process of law in a fair legal setting and the public scrutiny of evidence are integral components in preventing torture. Too often, secret evidence is collected through abusive interrogation methods.

McCain also voted against the anti-torture amendment to the intelligence authorization bill, which would have applied the same interrogation standards to the CIA as those McCain applied to the United States military. This is no small consideration, given that the CIA still administers secret interrogation prisons and practices extraordinary rendition.

Finally, McCain led the effort to pass the Military Commissions Act, which among other things granted interrogators retroactive immunity for past instances of torture while establishing the military tribunal system that allows the executive branch the joint duties of judge and jury.

The group that called on the next president to ban torture today features an impressive array of individuals, including, according to a release, "Six Former Secretaries of State or Defense, Four Former Members of the Joint Chiefs, Top Officials from Every Administration Since Vietnam." It also includes a number of high-profile pro-life faith leaders, including Evangelical pastor Joel Hunter, Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Bishop Thomas Wenski of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It's these religious voices that serve as a particularly poignant reminder of the moral gravity of the torture issue -- which indeed, speaks fundamentally to how, as a society, we regard human life itself. In an era in which people of faith, particular Catholics, possess the power to swing elections, these voices should not be taken lightly.

The ball is, as they say, in McCain's court. Will he do the right thing and rediscover his convictions regarding the prohibition of torture, or will he continue to compromise these convictions in his effort to appease the far right?