John McCain and Moral Clarity

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation and detention after 9/11 has brought to the national stage a complement of dramatis personae along with views and postures that have deeply divided public opinion in America.

In the midst of the raging controversy, two archetypes have emerged that capture profound differences, both operational and moral, and that are troubling the political and social texture of the nation. On one side, there is Republican Sen. John McCain who has taken an inspired position of remarkable moral clarity on the issue of torture. He speaks with authority, having spent five years in harsh captivity in North Vietnam. He has set himself apart from the apologists of the shocking treatment of prisoners by expressing the hope that the controversy will help Americans reach a consensus that “we will never again engage in these horrific abuses.”


On the other side of the political contest stands the figurehead of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Unlike McCain, Cheney never served in the military and did not have to face the brunt of fighting. It is a stark confrontation that pits McCain against Cheney. For McCain, the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. He agrees with the report that the extreme methods used by the CIA produced no useful information and did not help in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.


Cheney has no doubts and no scruples. He strongly believes that water boarding and enhanced interrogation techniques were effective and kept Americans safe. The report strongly suggests otherwise. It found no evidence that valuable information had been extracted or that plots had been foiled. In some cases, there was no relationship between the vaunted counter terrorism success and any information provided by the detainees during the CIA enhanced interrogation. The reality is a well known human trait: people subjected to torture tend to say what they believe their interrogators want to hear.

When all is said and done, the question, however, is not whether torture works, but what it costs the country at large. These costs can be extensive and can damage the ideals that the United States has held even in times of great crisis. In simple terms, the legal, moral and strategic costs of torture outweigh any argument that enhanced interrogation, that is torture, is a necessary tool in combating terrorism.

In the last analysis, as McCain has passionately stressed, the issue is not about the tool used, but about abiding by our laws and values, as a nation whose president had issued an executive order in 2009 banning torture. No less significant, the U.N. Convention Against Torture was ratified in 1994 by the U.S. Senate. The salient fact, however, is that the intelligence agency did practice torture and that torture does not make Americans safer.

Americans can choose between the moral clarity of McCain and the hypocrisy of those politicians, first among them the former vice president, who call the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee a “partisan” action that undermines the ability of intelligence officers to protect the national security of the United States. Among those officers one has to include the two psychologists who worked in the  Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Program that was devised to train Americans in what to do if taken by the enemy. The program was reverse engineered to extract information through torture from captured “enemy combatants.”

The psychologists were paid $81 million for that contribution to CIA interrogation methods. Ironically, the CIA detainees took a leaf from the original program, as the report reveals: while being subjected to the CIA enhanced interrogation techniques, they fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.

The last observation raised by the report concerns the competence of the CIA. It is a big issue that ordinary citizens cannot resolve, but the congressional report has certainly opened it to public scrutiny. It is not an issue that can be approached by impugning the professionalism and patriotic devotion of a large number of people involved in intelligence. The choice is not between patriotism and human rights. McCain has put it in compelling terms: “It isn’t about our enemies. It’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.”

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