06/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Tora Bora Of The Mind

McCain, the one-time maverick who stood against the Administration's War on Terror handling of detainees -- partly as a safeguard, he said, against diminishing the dignity of and respect for U.S. soldiers -- now appears to be philosophically matching Bush-Cheney at their worst on exactly these issues.

In a generally sympathetic interview with "the big talker" radio personality Michael Smerconish, McCain made news for backpedaling on Bush's failed hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The tough-guy candidate for president blamed the complex geography and history of Waziristan in northern Pakistan for our failure to find and capture the world's icon of "radical Islamic terrorism" -- those three spell-binding words that McCain can't say enough of since he fell in with Joe Lieberman on the campaign trail.

"You can go on the internet," McCain told Smerconish, "and you can look at the countryside and there is a reason why it hasn't been governed since Alexander the Great. They are ruled by about, as my understanding, 13 tribal entities and nobody has ever governed them..."

Although it's true Waziristan is a complex place, that's not the reason for the Bush failure. In any case, that kind of casting about was unconvincing to Smerconish. To the talk radio listeners, McCain likely sounded more like one of the region's alleged "tribal entities" resigned to the dictates of fate than the military hero-leader of the free world he's posing as these days. So much so, in fact, that Smerconish was prompted to actually speak to McCain as if he (Smerconish) were a person who wanted to know something and not a fawning member of the press. What came as a result is what didn't really make the news.

Smerconish said that he, in fact, as a Republican, supported the Obama approach to the hunt for Bin Laden -- to move immediately on actionable intelligence -- and in the talk that followed got McCain, stumblingly and unwittingly, to concede that he (McCain) also agreed with Obama.

SMERCONISH: "What was wrong with what Senator Obama said when he said he would take action...? I applauded him. Everybody called him naive, but I support that...."

MCCAIN: "Of course, of course I would take action if we had actionable intelligence. We just acted on some actionable intelligence and apparently we may have killed eleven Pakistani soldiers. Um, and uh, that is, obviously arouses the anger of some in Pakistan... Of course you would, if you had actionable intelligence, you would take action... unlike President Clinton when he had actionable-- actionable intelligence. I just wanna tell you it's a dicey relationship... if Pakistan turns into an anti-American country and a base for radical Islamic extremism, my friends, in the words of, I've forgotten who it is, you ain't seen nothing yet!"

More significant is the front part of the interview, when Smerconish gave McCain time to deliver a set-piece on the recent Supreme Court ruling against the Administration's handling of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

In his semi-prepared remarks McCain heaps scorn on the courts and on the detainees and heats up the rhetoric so that no less than "peace in the world" is threatened if we follow this week's Boumediene Supreme Court ruling and provide the detainees with access to civilian courts. McCain has no qualms about raising the military process above the civilian process in the matter of the rights of the detainees -- even given the kangaroo-style justice the military has meted out so far and that civilian lawyers have been forced to keep reviewing in shock and horror. McCain also betrays the fact that he indiscriminately assumes the guilt of the men held at Guantanamo -- again, even after all we've learned about the slipshod way these men fell under the suspicion and the sway of their jailers. "These people," as he calls them repeatedly, as if they are all of a piece and not what they actually are -- a diverse combination of men and boys and very old men, some bad and some unlucky, from countries across the globe.

"Well I'm glad to be back on [the program] and this is a very interesting time, Michael, in light of this terrible supreme court decision," is how McCain introduces himself to the listeners. "I'd like to talk about it for a minute if we can."

"Offer it to me," says Smerconish.

Well basically they're extending the rights of habeas corpus to non citizens, to enemy combatants, to people who are seeking to destroy the United States of America and we're gonna end up, I think, endangering peace in the world because these people are now going to able to go to court, they're gonna be able to have civilian judges with no military experience making decisions that, uh, have everything to do with the national security of this country. And we had a detainee treatment act that prohibited torture that was somewhat controversial among some and we did have set up military commissions so that these people would be given certain rights and representations -- Joe Lieberman and I and Lindsey Graham -- and now we have a Supreme Court decision that, in the words of Justice Roberts, is going to put authority into the hands of people who have no idea about the military aspects of this... [and goes on to say Roberts says this will only result in increased litigation...] I agree with Justice Roberts. Senator Obama applauded this decision, again indicating his inexperience and lack of knowledge.

McCain and Smerconish never let on, of course, that Obama's was no radical stance. It was the same stance agreed upon by the majority of the Supreme Court -- a Court that is by no means stacked against the Bush Administration but that, on the contrary, has found itself essentially forced by professional pride to rule against the reaching arguments written by the Administration lawyers and pushed through the system in wartime. Yet even now that the chickens are home to roost, and the Bush-era detention and military commissions cases will continue to be lost or thrown out at an increasing pace, McCain and Lieberman refuse to read the writing on the wall. They will keep arguing instead about how the Court and Obama and everyone who disagrees with them is endangering the "peace of the world."

So why is it not clear yet that they're not going to find their way to the presidency through the same-old scare tactics? The Supreme Court has ruled against them. Voters on all sides believe Bush is the worst president ever. "Change" is the catchword of the day. But to the new McCain, advocating for change and also really meaning it is to "indicate your inexperience and lack of knowledge"!

The presumptive Republican nominee's take on the Boumediene ruling is more evidence that he is wandering in a Waziristan of his own making. The Maverick has lost his way, his trusted guide Lieberman steering him from one crevasse to the next, upward inevitably to the same terrorist-ruled nowhereland our leaders have been roaming these past eight years -- to the Tora Bora of the mind!

The full audio of the interview remains available for now at home page of the the big talker, in the right-hand column of the page.