John McCain has a carefully cultivated image as a Senate maverick, a man who talks "straight" and is willing to support unpopular positions if it is in the national interest. Much of that characterization is essentially bogus, with McCain trimming his sails on a regular basis to make himself more electable in his bid for the presidency. In 2000, his depiction of the confederate flag flying over South Carolina's capital shifted from "very offensive" to "a symbol of heritage." McCain attacked Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson of the religious right in the same campaign, calling Falwell an "agent of intolerance," and accurately describing Bob Jones University as anti-Catholic. He paid the price in South Carolina and elsewhere in the south and felt compelled to make his own walk to Canossa, giving the 2006 commencement speech at Falwell's Liberty University to establish his born again credentials. On the issue of immigration, McCain supported a guest workers' scheme coupled with an amnesty mechanism similar to the unpopular program being promoted by the Bush White House, but he now insists that he would unleash the army to seal off the Mexican border if elected president. On tax cuts, McCain opposed Bush's Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 because the benefits went disproportionately to the rich, but he now supports making the cuts permanent.
McCain's flip-flop on torture is perhaps his greatest hypocrisy, particularly because he was himself a victim at the hands of the North Vietnamese and because he has often spoken out forcefully against it. He has also bared his scars in support of his political ambitions, featuring in his campaign photos and commentary relating to the physical abuse that he suffered for his country. Citing his time as a POW, McCain has frequently taken the high ground on the detention and interrogation of detainees in the White House's so-called War on Terror. On October 3rd, 2005, he introduced the McCain Detainee Amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill for 2005. Two days later the United States Senate voted 90-9 to pass the amendment which prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners, including prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, by limiting interrogations to the methods detailed in the US military's Field Manual 34-52 on Intelligence Interrogation.
President Bush had threatened to veto the bill if McCain's language was included but he subsequently accepted McCain's terms after what were reported to be hard-nosed negotiations between the Senator and the White House. McCain, his off-the-cuff comments revealing his genuine ambivalence on the issue, told Chris Matthews of MSNBC:
"We had quite a period of strong, spirited discussion with the administration about that. We passed, as you know, some months ago a thing called the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibits any cruel, inhumane treatment, and in this legislation we made it very clear that that still pertained. I won't go through all the details of it, but it does not allow torture, and it will not allow torture. And at the same time, I think you do understand that there are some people who are very, very bad people, and I think that to continue a program for some of them, without torture, is something that we can't deprive the President of the United States of. But I think we struck the right balance, and I can assure you I would never agree to anything that I believe could allow torture. I promise you that."
Bush benefited from the McCain endorsement, saying that he would "make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad." But the catch was that President Bush made clear his interpretation of the legislation in a signing statement, reserving what he described as his presidential constitutional authority to avoid further terrorist attacks, which would include the use of torture if necessary. McCain knew perfectly well that he had surrendered on the issue but did not object, feeling that he had occupied the moral high ground and picked up the favorable headlines while preserving the president's authority to carry out "enhanced interrogations."
Even more disturbing is McCain's embrace of the Military Commissions Act of October 2006. The reported "compromise" before the bill was passed and the media acclamation of John McCain as a champion of human rights was shameful. Bush security advisor Stephen Hadley described the bill as "good news and a good day for the American people" while McCain asserted that it safeguarded "the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions." In reality, the act did nothing of the sort. It stripped habeas corpus rights for citizens and non-citizens accused of terrorism and legalized US war crimes committed before December 30th, 2005. It also prevented individuals injured or killed through US violation of the Geneva Conventions from filing a claim in a US court. Legal US residents were denied their right to challenge their detention in court if they are accused of being enemy combatants and the act also retroactively abolished the right of Guantánamo detainees to challenge their detention. Concerning torture, the act approved the CIA program that had allowed waterboarding and other forms of "enhanced interrogation" and authorized the president to define Geneva Conventions violations as he sees fit without any appeal to the courts. There is no prohibition of the Bush administration's once again authorizing waterboarding, threats against a prisoner's family, and hypothermia, all of which are considered to be both illegal and war crimes. The Military Commissions also permitted the designation of any individuals as unlawful enemy combatants if they provide material support to those engaged in hostilities against the US, a concept previously found unconstitutional. Even worse, the law expands the definition "unlawful enemy combatant" to include anyone cited by a tribunal under the authority of the president or the defense secretary. The law denies anyone determined to be an enemy combatant and anyone "awaiting such determination" the right to challenge the detention, treatment or conditions of confinement in court, even if there is evidence that they were subjected to torture, and it permits the use of evidence obtained from torture in the military tribunals.
McCain's most recent endorsement of torture was his vote against the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2008 on February 13th. The bill was hotly debated because it would make it illegal for US intelligence agencies to use interrogation techniques that are forbidden by the military's guidelines. President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation and McCain lined up with 38 other Republican Senators, one Democrat, and his good friend independent Joe Lieberman to vote against it. In the debate McCain argued somewhat bizarrely that while he strongly opposes torture he is unwilling to apply the military's standards to the intelligence agencies. Lieberman commented that waterboarding is not torture in any event as it does not permanent damage.
John McCain is a hypocrite and also a classic enabler. He publicly abhors a practice, apparently reflecting his genuine sentiments, but then covertly supports it for his own personal political gain. He and an acquiescent Congress have bestowed on the president of the United States the unilateral authority to determine interrogation tactics. Administration officials, instead of Congress or the courts, have been empowered to determine what constitutes a violation of the Geneva Conventions. As the White House continues to refuse to detail which interrogation practices are actually barred, it is possible to assume that under the proper circumstances anyone might be tortured based on suspicion or for no reason at all.