Sullivan on Bush, McCain and Torture

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Andrew Sullivan makes a very important point about Bush, McCain and the subject of torture. Two points, actually. The first is that Bush doesn’t think McCain was tortured:

The torture that was deployed against McCain emerges in all the various accounts. It involved sleep deprivation, the withholding of medical treatment, stress positions, long-time standing, and beating. Sound familiar?

According to the Bush administration’s definition of torture, McCain was therefore not tortured.


Yep. He’s right. Here’s more:

Cheney denies that McCain was tortured; as does Bush. So do John Yoo and David Addington and George Tenet. In the one indisputably authentic version of the story of a Vietnamese guard showing compassion, McCain talks of the agony of long-time standing. A quarter century later, Don Rumsfeld was putting his signature to memos lengthening the agony of “long-time standing” that victims of Bush’s torture regime would have to endure. These torture techniques are, according to the president of the United States, merely “enhanced interrogation.”

No war crimes were committed against McCain. And the techniques used are, according to the president, tools to extract accurate information. And so the false confessions that McCain was forced to make were, according to the logic of the Bush administration, as accurate as the “intelligence” we have procured from “interrogating” terror suspects. Feel safer?

The cross-in-the-dirt story – although deeply fishy to any fair observer – is in the realm of the unprovable. But the actual techniques used on McCain, and the lies they were designed to legitimize, are a matter of historical record. And the government of the United States now practices the very same techniques that the Communist government of North Vietnam once proudly used against American soldiers. When they are used against future John McCains, the victims will know, in a way McCain didn’t, that their own government has no moral standing to complain.

And the second point, about McCain himself:

Now the kicker: in the Military Commissions Act, McCain acquiesced to the use of these techniques against terror suspects by the CIA. And so the tortured became the enabler of torture. Someone somewhere cried out in pain for the same reasons McCain once did. And McCain let it continue.

Andrew ends his post by saying, “These are the prices people pay for power.” I’d say that’s a good point as well. McCain has spent most of his post-Vietnam left as a voice of morality on the right, speaking out strongly against torture in many circumstances. But he knew that there was no way he could get the nomination if he voted against the Military Commissions Act and appeared in any way to be “soft” on terrorism. So he compromised, and he did so on one of the issues that had long defined him. He took a position that violated his personal beliefs because his personal beliefs were not politically convenient. Just like Obama did on the FISA bill, by the way.

–Ed Brayton

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37 Responses to “Sullivan on Bush, McCain and Torture”

  1. #1 |  Danno49 | 

    Hardly surprising but sickening all the same.

  2. #2 |  Mal Armstrong | 

    The best argument I’ve ever read against torture (waterboarding specifically) was penned by Hitchens:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/08/hitchens200808

    What is so convincing about his argument is that he gives the best argument for the other side and says: “I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint.”

  3. #3 |  Phelps | 

    This article is BS. McCain was beaten and had medical treatment withheld. That is not part of American “torture” techniques.

    People who ignore this distinction are being fundamentally dishonest in this debate. We can disagree on where the threshold is, but this is a slander against American troops and interrogators.

  4. #4 |  Les | 

    This article is BS. McCain was beaten and had medical treatment withheld. That is not part of American “torture” techniques.

    Really? How do you know?

  5. #5 |  my 2 cents | 

    Way back when I once voted for McCain. Neither he nor I are the same person. What really gets me is that he is worth millions, yet get $1900+ a month in social security,Plus military disability benefits.And No one else seems to think this is an important issue. If I still voted I would vote for Paris, not kidding either. my 2 cents

  6. #6 |  Michael Chaney | 

    McCain had his teeth knocked out, among other things. Sorry, we’re not into mutilation. Sully is wrong as usual – if you ignore certain parts of McCain’s ordeal he would be correct. But conveniently ignoring facts, then building an entire theory around it, is a bit silly.

    But, then, so is sully…

  7. #7 |  Lee | 

    We have beaten to death prisoners, so I’m not sure what distinction you’re trying to make with McCain.

    Just because we have not beaten to death ALL the prisoners we don’t torture?

  8. #8 |  ktc2 | 

    LOL. Headline for CNN: “Bush says McCain never tortured.”

  9. #9 |  Ed Brayton | 

    We have more than convincing evidence that American personnel have beaten numerous prisoners, some to death, while in our custody. We have memos showing them conspiring to hide those prisoners from the Red Cross. We have memos instructing them that as long as the subject doesn’t die, everything’s okay. Anyone who seriously suggests that America has not beaten prisoners is living in a dream world.

  10. #10 |  Nando | 

    Actually, the point he should be making is that McCain himself, by signing the MCA, is claiming that he himself wasn’t tortured. He approved the same measures that were used against him and then boldly claims that “America doesn’t torture!”.

  11. #11 |  my 2 cents | 

    The fact that you did not post my comment reinforces my belief on McCain and social security

  12. #12 |  Sky | 

    That is not part of American “torture” techniques.

    Really? Since when?

    And what do you call what happened at Abu Ghraib? And what about Gitmo?

  13. #13 |  Alex | 

    Another one bit by the 1st time commenter approval.

    I’m not a fan of McCain at all, but I have to agree with Phelps and Chaney. Answer this honestly, would you rather be at Guantanamo or the Hanoi Hilton?

    At #2, the specific quote Mal mentions is this: “On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint.” I don’t believe that’s an arguement as much as needed perspective. I’m firmly in the anti-torture camp (which is just weird to say), but claiming moral equivalency is still silly.

  14. #14 |  Michael Chaney | 

    I know that there have been atrocities committed by American forces, at the very least at Abu Graibh and in Afghanistan, including prisoners being beaten to death.

    And while it might not have been handled appropriately, it’s still not state policy.

  15. #15 |  Les | 

    And while it might not have been handled appropriately, it’s still not state policy.

    Well, it’s not official state policy. That’s all we can know for sure with this administration.

  16. #16 |  buzz | 

    “What really gets me is that he is worth millions, yet get $1900+ a month in social security,Plus military disability benefits.And No one else seems to think this is an important issue.”
    Because it isn’t an important issue. Jesus Christ, what else do you think the man has to go thru to earn those military benefits? And you are also claiming he didn’t pay into Social Security?

    “Well, it’s not official state policy. That’s all we can know for sure with this administration.” Right. Just this administration. When the Clinton administration did a rendition, the victim got candy and ice cream.

    “The cross-in-the-dirt story – although deeply fishy to any fair observer”
    Oh fucking bullshit. Deeply fishy? Has anyone actually read some of the stories of the American POWs during that war? There is nothing fishy about it what so ever and it is so beyond the pale to tell a man who spent years in that hell hole and who by ALL accounts aquitted himself admirably.

    There could be any number of reasons not to vote for McCain, many political reasons to challenge him on, but to use what he went thru as a POW as a club against Bush is just contemptible.

  17. #17 |  Andrew Williams | 

    Since McCain was not tortured, but claims he was tortured, he is a lying liar who is therefore perfectly qualified to be President.
    Double plus good. Big Brother is watching you watching telescreen.

  18. #18 |  Les | 

    Right. Just this administration. When the Clinton administration did a rendition, the victim got candy and ice cream.

    Down, boy! If Clinton was still president, I would have used the same language. Pointing out that this administration is dishonest and incompetent doesn’t naturally imply that any other administration wasn’t.

  19. #19 |  Lee | 

    Well, it’s not official state policy. That’s all we can know for sure with this administration.

    Are we sure it is not official state policy? There has been some credible evidence pointing to the fact that it actually was sanctioned by the White House (I’m refering to the meeting of Rice, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft & Cheney). If that turns out to be true, how can it NOT be offcial state policy?

    Deeply fishy? Has anyone actually read some of the stories of the American POWs during that war? There is nothing fishy about it what so ever and it is so beyond the pale to….

    You did nothing to defend the story other than shout “THY SHALL NOT QUESTION McHERO ABOUT HIS McHEROISM”. Funny it seemed legitimate to question a veterns creditials when they are a democrat, but not so much when they are a republican. Funny how that works.

  20. #20 |  ParatrooperJJ | 

    He earned every penny of his disability pension.

  21. #21 |  Nando | 

    #5 | my 2 cents | August 20th, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Way back when I once voted for McCain. Neither he nor I are the same person. What really gets me is that he is worth millions, yet get $1900+ a month in social security,Plus military disability benefits.And No one else seems to think this is an important issue. If I still voted I would vote for Paris, not kidding either. my 2 cents

    I don’t think your two cents are even worth two cents.

    McCain earned his military retirement pay, he earned his disability pay, and he earned his Social Security pay. What possible reason could you give any sane person to convince them to NOT receive money they’ve EARNED? I might not like McCain as a person or as a candidate (much less as a President), but I will not question him for accepting what he deserves.

    However, I would think higher of him if he voluntarily turned those benefits down. I just don’t think he should be thought of any less for accepting them.

  22. #22 |  Wayne | 

    I am not a fan of McCain, but I don’t agree with Phelps and Chaney. As for where I’d rather be tortured, I think at the Hanoi Hilton — at least there, there’s hope that you’ll be rescued by Americans. At Gitmo, you’re fucked.

  23. #23 |  MMIE | 

    The Hanoi Songbird wasn’t tortured.

  24. #24 |  max | 

    A logical error. The Bush Administration holds the position that not all sleep deprivation, stress position usage or physical contact rises to the level of torture therefore Sullivan argues that no use of these rises to the level of torture. Not a valid summary of the administration position since it was specifically noted repeatedly (yes, even in the Yoo memo) that all of these may if used excessively constitute torture, but we can ignore those inconvenient facts in the name of TRUTH(tm). Whether or not these techniques used against McCain did rise to the level necessary to meet the administration’s definition of torture is a valid question, but that’s not in Sullivan’s piece.

  25. #25 |  Nando | 

    Max,

    I think it’s a black or white situation. Either a situation constitutes torture or it doesn’t. You mean to tell us that if a detainee is waterboarded once then it’s not torture but if waterboarded repeatedly then it amounts to torture? What about the beatings some prisoners have received? If you only beat one prisoner, or each prisoner once, you’re not torturing them?

    These procedures don’t need to be used excessively to be considered torture. They only need to be used once.

  26. #26 |  Joel | 

    What happened to this place? The Agitator used to be a great place to find reasonable, coherent discussion. Now it’s just a liberal circle jerk. McCain is accepting his military benefits? Horrific! McCain had his teeth broken off at the gumline and to this day cannot raise his arms above his head? Meh.
    And Andy Sullivan’s writing as a point of discussion? Andy hasn’t been playing with a full deck in a long time.

  27. #27 |  Alex | 

    Nando,

    Could you expand your point? Sure waterboarding is black-and-white, but what about long-time standing and sleep deprivation? I don’t see how one could deny a huge grey area there.

  28. #28 |  Phelps | 

    I’m with Alex. You don’t have a hard time getting libertarians to agree that someone getting stopped by a cop once for a broken headlight is probably acceptable probable cause, but stopping him 15 times isn’t. Why is this distinction so hard to see in other things?

    And I don’t think that the quality of the comments has gone down. It is just that Radley didn’t allow comments for so long, and once he did, they degenerated pretty quickly. The “voting” system just makes it worse.

  29. #29 |  Nando | 

    #27 | Alex | August 21st, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Nando,

    Could you expand your point? Sure waterboarding is black-and-white, but what about long-time standing and sleep deprivation? I don’t see how one could deny a huge grey area there.

    Sure I can. What you’re thinking of is a function of time vice recurrence, i.e. making someone stand for 15 minutes isn’t as bad as making them stand for 15 hours. That is true and I doubt anyone will argue that point. What I meant to say is that making someone stand for 15 hours is torture, no matter if you do it once or if you do it “excessively,” as Max pointed out (and Yoo wrote about).

    The same goes for sleep deprivation or withholding food or water. In a perfect, non-torturous world, Gitmo would have set schedules, just like in prison. You get to eat at x:xx time EVERY day; lights out are at x:xx time, EVERY day…etc. Interrogations should only consist of the interviews conducted by the interrogators, not other tactics which “enhance” the interrogation process. I think it’s pretty clear that none of these methods work, other than creating a rapport and befriending the detainee.

    I’m also not arguing for the interrogations to stop because it’s lunch time or what have you, but allowing a person access to food twice a day wouldn’t amount to torture in anyone’s book. That means they can wake the detainee up in the morning, offer him breakfast (he doesn’t have to eat it, but they have to offer it) and then proceed to interrogate him all day long if they’d like, so long as he’s offered dinner before he goes to sleep (hopefully allowing a minimum of 6 hours for rest each day).

  30. #30 |  Alex | 

    Phelps, I don’t the the comments are that bad when compared to the rest of the internet (this is the only place I comment anonymously). There’s several regular commenters who are always thoughtful and articulate: Nando, UCrawford, Steve Verndon, Highway, and at least a few others. I think the problem with the comments are that college kids and true believers (Ruwart fans) are the only ones with the time and inclination to do a lot of blog commenting, but I don’t think the problem is all that bad here. Ever read HuffPo comments?

    Also, I agree about the kharma thing. It’s really silly.

  31. #31 |  Alex | 

    Nando,

    Thanks. I think we’re pretty close on this then. One point where you might be wrong though: I think there’s plenty who would consider 2 meals a day and 6 hours of sleep torture. I wish they’d shut up because it makes the more reasonable “anti-torture” positions look bad.

  32. #32 |  Nando | 

    Alex,

    Two meals a day and 6 hours of sleep is a normal day for me (and probably 50% of working-class Americans). If that’s torture then my company needs to be taken to Geneva! LOL

  33. #33 |  william | 

    All I can say is: (1) He is collecting 150% ($60k) of the average annual salary in DISABILITY every year. (2) If he is able to run for, and perform as, President, he is NOT disabled. (3) Therefore he should either return ALL the money he has collected, or be charged with Article 15 (I think) MALINGERING !!!!

  34. #34 |  Nando | 

    William, where do you get your $60K figure? No veteran, no matter what ails him, can collect that much money in disability. As a matter of fact, according to the VA charts that determine how much money you get, based on your disability rating, the most any disabled veteran with a spouse can receive, even if he’s 100% disabled, is $2,669 a month ($32,028 a year, half of what you claim McCain is receiving).

    Here’s the link:
    http://www.vba.va.gov/BLN/21/rates/comp01.htm

    BTW, I’m a disabled vet myself (rated at 70% with spouse if you want to know how much taxpayers give me each month) so I know what I’m talking about.

    Maybe you’re talking about his retirement pay? He retired as a Navy Captain (06), one rank before Admiral (or General in the Army). His retirement pay is probably close to $60K a year, but he earned that by serving 33 years in the Navy. How many did you serve?

    People who comment ignorantly always get my goat. Anyone who claims that McCain is paid $60K a year in disability payments is either making the number up or doesn’t bother to do his homework before making such an ignorant claim.

  35. #35 |  Red Green | 

    The entire US citizenry has been tortured daily,for the past eight years,having to listen to BUSHCO over and over ,day by day,lie after lie. I could scream.

  36. #36 |  max | 

    Sorry for not getting back to you sooner Nando but RL intervense with occasionally with my free time.

    Waterboarding is a non-issue for the argument Sullivan is making, McCain has never mentioned waterboarding.

    Beating is a different issue, the administration’s position is that beating is not allowed HOWEVER beating does not include pokes and prods which blurs the black-and-whiteness of the issue. Beating prisoners is not allowed but when does physical contact change from allowable poking to unallowable beating? Is all physical contact to be considered beating, and if so would offering a prisoner who has twisted an ankle a hand up be prohibited (as a beating) or would forcing an injured prisoner who has fallen to stand up on their own be abusive? Arguments can be made for prohibiting poking and prodding (a good one is that it blurs the line between beating permissible poking making it likely that interrogators will without realizing it start to torture) but is it appropriate to consider all physical contact or even just poking to be torture?

    An argument can be made that the treatment McCain received does not meet the Bush admionistration definition of torture but Sullivan hasn’t made it, at best he’s assumed it (let’s be generous). It’s a straight logical error, ascribing the charecteristics of one member of a group to be characteristics of the entire group . It is particularly offensive given that the administration has repeatedly pointed out that any of these procedures if used differently would constitute torture by the US.

  37. #37 |  Sammy | 

    OK, I am going to have to weigh in here, which is something I NEVER do.

    First, a little background:
    I have a great deal of personal experience working in all kinds of military and government prisons, dealing with “enemy combatants.” As a matter of fact, if a prison exists, I have either been there myself, or am closely associated with someone who has. I have been involved in all manner of interrogations, including the “enhanced” variety.

    Here is what I’ve seen:
    I’ve seen people frightened. I’ve seen people humiliated. I’ve seen people insulted. In short, I’ve seen people’s feelings get hurt.

    As a matter of policy, I have NOT seen people beaten. I have not seen a bruise form or a bone broken. I have not seen anyone wait for medical care for longer than the time necessary to find an available doctor. I have not seen anyone denied food, water, or bathroom facilities for more than could be considered reasonable (i.e. as long as any of you would deny yourselves these same services if, lets say, you were having a busy day at work).

    I HAVE seen people cross the line, and I have seen those people taken off in chains.

    So, yeah, go to a military prison, get your feelings hurt, not get to do whatever you want whenever you want, but have your physical well being guaranteed, save for the potential freak criminal act.

    You may call that torture. I call that junior high.

    Now, before the attacks come in, claiming I am some kind of brainwashed government stooge, let me explain:
    I no longer work for the government, and will never work for them again. I am sickened to have worked to further their pointless agenda on the back of so much human misery. If someone came along and stripped the government down to where it was 200 years ago (ya know, the one the founding fathers set up) I would be dancing in the street.
    So, why am I defending the government on this point? Because I want to see them go down, but not over some crap some journalist heard from an unsubstantiated source (who, in turn, was full of crap), which was then repeated ad-nausium by a bunch of other journalists. I want to see them go down for the right reasons; for the things they actually DID.
    Besides which, claiming that making someone feel bad about themselves is the same thing as cutting someone’s fingers off, one by one, is an insult to the many American vets who have endured REAL torture and remained loyal to their convictions.

    As an aside, I have friends who work in the (civilian) prison system, and I think the real question is: Would you rather go to GITMO or Attica? Knowing what I know, it would be GITMO 10 times out of 10.

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