Monday, March 17, 2008

The first of two columns on President Bush’s veto.

John McCain has determinedly prevailed against setbacks in his campaign for the presidency and on March 5, he obtained a ringing endorsement as the Republican presidential nominee from his former opponent, President Bush. Said Mr. McCain: “… on the fundamentals and principles of the Republican party and most of the specifics of our shared conservative philosophy, President Bush and I are in agreement.” Omitted was their shared affinity for certain practices of torture by the CIA.

Back on Dec. 15, 2005, Mr. McCain, during a televised meeting with the president, was able to proclaim after Mr. Bush had yielded to his demand to support legislation against torture: “We can move forward and make sure that the whole world knows that, as the president has stated many times, that we do not practice cruel, inhuman treatment or torture.” If Mr. McCain really believed the president then, he would not have felt the need to press for his anti-torture amendment against the strong opposition of Vice President Dick Cheney, the president’s consultant on “the dark arts.” Indeed, Mr. Bush, after signing the bill with Mr. McCain’s amendment, immediately issued one of his elastic signing statements that he would not enforce that prohibition if it interfered with his constitutional responsibility for national security.

By the end of December 2005, the president had signed the Detainee Treatment Act which Mr. McCain voted for. That legislation stripped prisoners at Guantanamo Bay from habeas corpus rights to protest in our federal courts not only the legality of their detention, but also their conditions of confinement, including torture. And the president’s Guantanamo tribunals were allowed by that law to consider evidence against detainees extracted by “coercion” — a pliable synonym for torture, as has been documented at Guantanamo. This largely nullified Mr. McCain’s previous amendment.

The next year, Mr. McCain voted for the Military Commissions Act that gave the president the authority to interpret the rules of the Geneva Conventions (which we’ve signed) on treatment of prisoners that could let him twist that agreement to approve “coercive” interrogations. In a later executive order, Mr. Bush specifically validated the power of the CIA to continue its purported cruel, inhuman and degrading practices (not by that name) in its secret prisons that the presidential executive order continued.

I do not recall an objection by Mr. McCain to that presidential executive order that further subverted the senator’s asserted condemnation of torture.

This year, the Republican presidential nominee, courting conservatives, solidified his alliance with Mr. Bush in voting to accord special interrogation privileges to the CIA. During a February Senate vote on the 2008 Intelligence Authorization Act (which for the first time would establish in law, through the Army Field Manual which does prohibit torture, a single standard for all interrogations by our forces), Mr. McCain voted against that measure because it would end the special license the president has given the CIA.

A majority of both the Senate and the House have voted for this amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act that would compel the CIA to adhere to a basic American value: It was firmly stated last May by Gen. David Petraeus in an open letter to his troops who have so courageously and steadfastly changed the odds on the ground in Iraq — a surge that Mr. McCain supports, as do I.

Said Gen. Petraeus: “What sets us apart from the enemy in this fight… is how we behave… Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong… In fact, our experience in applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations that was published (in 2006) shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.” Why did Mr. McCain vote against a single standard proved effective by the Army Field Manual?

He used to say about torture: “It’s not who they (the enemy) are. It’s who we are.” Mr. McCain’s watery explanation of his vote: “We always supported allowing the CIA to use extra measures… What we need is not to tie the CIA to the Army Field Manual.” Oh, Mr. McCain continued to say his vote against the single standard is “consistent” with his former convictions. He doesn’t say how it is.

On March 8, the president vetoed the bill that makes the CIA consistent with our values as exemplified by Gen. Petraeus. Over their celebratory lunch at the White House, there was no indication that Mr. McCain tried to argue Mr. Bush out of the veto.

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