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.
To be fair, McCain's original anti-torture amendment also gave the CIA greater leeway -- and that was the problem. As long as there is a double standard for interrogations, there will be suspicions that the CIA is engaging in practices that most reasonable people would consider torture -- including waterboarding, which was inflicted on three suspected terrorists in 2002 and 2003. Such suspicion is deepened by signs that Bush doesn't agree with McCain that waterboarding is now illegal. Earlier this month, Bush spokesman Tony Fratto said that it was legal and could be employed again "under certain circumstances."
Bush long ago proved that, in dealing with the reality and the threat of terrorism, his administration will take a mile for every inch that Congress gives. In voting to give Bush that inch, McCain has been untrue to his principles.