John McCain has moral clarity about CIA torture report

McCain refutes arguments of Republicans who say details of CIA torture should not be revealed

As a former prisoner of war who experienced torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, John McCain has more standing, by far, than any of his colleagues in the U.S. Senate when it comes to rendering judgment about the CIA’s Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” program. So, his approval of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s detailed report on the spy agency’s torture methods carries convincing weight.

A number of his fellow-Republicans have expressed outrage over the report’s release. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said the Democrats who run the intelligence committee were exposing the CIA’s shocking treatment of detainees purely for “partisan joy.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the “partisan report will endanger lives, drive away our allies – who have never been needed more than now – and undermine the ability of our intelligence officers and soldiers to protect our national security.” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said he had “mixed feelings” and was concerned that the “gruesomeness of the details may well inflame people.”

But McCain’s feelings were not mixed. The Arizonan has a moral clarity on the issue, forged during five years of harsh captivity in the notorious Hanoi Hilton. And, because of that personal experience, he said he is convinced, not only that “the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” but that it is a betrayal of national values.

The report presents evidence that, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA was empowered to use extreme methods when questioning al-Qaida operatives, but that the approach produced no useful information and did not help in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Instead, private contractors hired by the CIA and operating at various international “black sites” got carried away and seemed to be inflicting excruciating pain for no good reason.

CIA officials and former Vice President Dick Cheney sharply disagree, saying useful intelligence was obtained by the extreme methods. To McCain, though, whether torture elicits information or not is beside the point. Americans should never stoop to such a level of barbarism, he insists. “Our enemies act without conscience,” McCain said in a speech on the floor of the Senate. “We must not.”

The Senate GOP caucus leader, Mitch McConnell, is pushing the argument that release of the torture details was unnecessary and provocative, but McCain believes admitting that torture happened and letting the public know about it is a necessary corrective step in a democratic society. 

“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow,” McCain said. “It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.”

In China and Russia there is a lot of gloating going on right now. The not-so-free media in those countries are saying the report confirms the U.S. government’s stark hypocrisy. Lecturing the world on human rights while secretly running torture prisons around the world makes Americans no better than anyone else, they say.

But what makes the United States better than China and Russia, at least, is that, unlike the secretive and ruthless systems governing those countries, the American constitutional system allows investigation of moral failures, exposure of bad policies and rebuke of leaders who betray high principles. It’s not comfortable having flaws exposed for all to see and enemies of the U.S. will try to use the revelations against us. But discerning people around the world will admire our willingness to admit wrongdoing and will wish they had governments as open to reform.

As McCain said, “This question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.”

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