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During the widely seen and analyzed premier presidential debate, Barack Obama was grossly mistaken when, toward the end, he said: “I give Senator McCain great credit on the torture issue, for having identified that as something that undermines our long-term security – because of those things, we, I think, are going to have a lot of work to do in the next administration to restore that sense that America is that shining beacon on a hill.”

Our torture has shamed us.

In fact, although McCain in the past has spoken eloquently against torture during interrogations of terrorism suspects, his actual votes in Congress tell a different, shameful story.

He voted for the Detainees Treatment Act of 2005 that stripped Guantanamo Bay prisoners of their habeas corpus rights (until the Supreme Court tried to intervene). That law added an “appeal” procedure that prevented prisoners from appealing their conditions of confinement – where the “coercive interrogations” and brutal force-feeding happened with no objection from McCain.

In 2006, McCain voted for the Military Commissions Act after the Supreme Court (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld) temporarily restored habeas rights at Guantanamo. That new law essentially overruled the Supreme Court for a time and gave George W. Bush the right, by himself, to interpret the Geneva Conventions, which expressly forbid “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” of prisoners.

When the president then, by executive order, continued the “special powers” he had given the CIA in their secret prisons (“black sites”) wholly beyond U.S. and international laws, McCain did not object. It was in one of those prisons, we now know, that the CIA practiced waterboarding, a criminal act, according to our (and international) laws.

Among the unrebutted books documenting some of the war crimes committed by CIA personnel (who were exculpated from any future punishment in our courts by the Military Commissions Act), I strongly recommend the personal accounts in this year’s “My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me” by Mahvish Khan (PublicAffairs, 2008).

The author, an American lawyer born of immigrant Afghan parents, who has been published in the Wall Street Journal, became an interpreter for Afghan detainees at Guantanamo Bay and was able to communicate with them in their own Pashto language. Among others, one among them, held in a CIA “ghost prison” in Kabul before being transferred to Guantanamo, tells of what Americans “with black masks” did to him. It is hard to read.

About this sort of treatment, McCain used to say, with regard to torture, “it’s not about who they (the jihadist enemy) are; it’s who we are.” Yet, after the Military Commissions Act was passed, McCain was on the Senate floor as both the House and Senate passed an amendment that mandated the CIA adhere to the Army Field Manual – which all our other services follow – that forbids torture.

John McCain voted against that anti-torture amendment, which George W. Bush – again excepting the CIA from our rule of law – vetoed. Is this, Obama, part of “the great credit” you give McCain “on the torture issues”?

I did not hear or see any of the scores of commentators, partisan or objective, after that first Obama-McCain debate refer to the tribute Obama gave to his rival concerning torture. Indeed, I don’t recall any focus, or even mention, throughout the entire presidential campaigns on the CIA’s damage to our reputation among our allies.

One of a growing number of examples of the collateral harm CIA renditions and tortures have done to our relationships with our allies (Italy, Germany, England and Canada, among others) is this report by Agnieszka Bienczyk-Missala of the University of Warsaw’s Institute of International Relations that:

“In August 2008, the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Poland started an investigation on the existence of secret CIA detention facilities in Poland. It happened three years after the revealing information published by the Washington Post and Human Rights Watch. So far, all consecutive Polish governments have neglected the issue, denying the CIA operated a secret prison in Poland. Yet it is highly probable that the state investigation will confirm Poland hosted illegal CIA prisons. The crucial step will be gathering evidence of practicing torture.” (Reported on the website Juris Doctor, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Sept. 27.)

In recent years, all Polish governments have denied any CIA secret prisons were permitted there, but already there is evidence that Polish officials were complicit in CIA renditions and thereby violated Polish law. Poland has long been a very pro-American nation in the European Union; but as many of its citizens were finding out about CIA black sites there, more Poles have become critical of American policy.

Back in December 2002, when Dana Priest and Barton Gellman broke the first American stories on not only the secret prisons but also the CIA renditions of suspects to be tortured in other countries known for that form of especially “aggressive” interrogation, they quoted a Bush administration official: “If we’re not there in the room, who’s to say?’”

McCain, who was in such a room as a victim for five awful years in Vietnam, used to say a lot about torture; but he exempts the CIA from the Army Field Manual banning what Gen. David Petraeus ordered his troops in Iraq never to do.

If McCain becomes president, which McCain will he be?


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