Sen. John McCain has been consistent on his opposition to torture.
Sen. John McCain has been consistent on his opposition to torture. AP
The debate over whether the Bush administration's use of enhanced interrogation techniques on admitted or suspected terrorist detainees led to the U.S. military's killing of Osama bin Laden has largely fallen along partisan lines.
Seeking vindication for President George W. Bush's approval of harsher interrogation methods, Republicans have generally argued that the information that led to the tracking of a bin Laden courier all the way to the terrorist leader's Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound initially came from the harsher interrogation methods approved by Bush.
Fierce critics of Bush during his time in office for signing off on interrogations, including waterboarding, Democrats have sought to minimize any importance such harsh questioning methods may have played in finally getting bin Laden.
On Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) weighed in, practically speaking, on the side of Democrats, which was unavoidable since he was coming down on the side opposed to the use of torture.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, attempted to kick the legs out from under the waterboarding-led-to-bin-Laden argument as only he can because of his powerful personal history as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
It obviously gives him a moral authority on the issue few others in Washington have.
I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.
Mistreatment of enemy prisoners endangers our own troops, who might someday be held captive. While some enemies, and al-Qaeda surely, will never be bound by the principle of reciprocity, we should have concern for those Americans captured by more conventional enemies, if not in this war then in the next.
This is the same view McCain expressed during the Bush administration. While McCain has shifted his views in recent years on some important issues (for instance, how to approach immigration reform), if he has been consistent on anything, it has been his opposition to torture.
In the specific case of bin Laden, McCain said he was told by CIA director and defense secretary-designate Leon Panetta, that the information that led to the terrorist leader's demise didn't result from enhanced interrogation.
I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed's real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.
In fact, the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti's real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.
One significant potential result of what McCain said here is that he inoculates Panetta on the issue when the Obama administration comes before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearings for the Pentagon post.
McCain is the senior Republican on that committee. So his assertion may keep the hearings from getting stuck on the issue of whether a line can be drawn from enhanced interrogation to bin Laden's death.
By weighing in as he has, McCain also gives the Obama administration and congressional Democrats a highly valuable endorsement of their view which they will no doubt make ready use of.
That might be so, but McCain wanted to make clear that the White House and Democrats could use him only to a point. He certainly didn't mean to impugn the former president, Vice President Dick Cheney or others who authorized or promoted the use of methods that many, including McCain, view as torture.
And he certainly didn't want anyone prosecuted for authorizing or conducting such interrogations. Obama administration officials had left the door open to such prosecutions.
I know those who approved and employed these practices were dedicated to protecting Americans. I know they were determined to keep faith with the victims of terrorism and to prove to our enemies that the United States would pursue justice relentlessly no matter how long it took.
I don't believe anyone should be prosecuted for having used these techniques, and I agree that the administration should state definitively that they won't be.