By Dan Eggen and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Republican presidential front-runner John McCain bluntly called waterboarding "torture and illegal" Wednesday morning, again challenging the Bush administration's defense of a harsh interrogation tactic that makes prisoners think they are drowning.
But later the same day, McCain cast a vote against Democratic-sponsored legislation supported by anti-torture advocates that sought to ban waterboarding and other coercive tactics by the CIA.
The Senate vote put McCain (R-Ariz.) on the same side as President Bush, who plans to veto the waterboarding ban. It also was consistent, his spokesman said, with statements McCain has made on the subject since 2005.
But several Democrats referred to the vote as an opportunity to undermine his image as a straight-talking opponent of harsh detainee treatment and as a former prisoner of war unafraid of challenging the administration on points of principle.
"He's in a precarious spot and is trying to shore up his base," said Stacie Paxton, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. "This shows he will put his principles on hold in order to get the nomination."
McCain and his campaign aides bristle at such allegations, saying that his opposition to waterboarding has not wavered and that his vote was consistent with his assertion that the interrogation technique is illegal.
McCain's vote put him in the Senate minority with 44 others. A total of 51 senators voted for the measure, which would force the CIA to follow the rules in the Army's field manual for interrogations. The two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), have said waterboarding is clearly illegal and should be banned, but neither voted on the Senate legislation because they were campaigning elsewhere.
Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top national security adviser, said McCain was concerned about the Senate legislation's requirement that the CIA abide by Army rules. "It's not a vote for torture," Scheunemann said. "This wasn't a vote on waterboarding. This was a vote on applying the standards of the field manual to CIA personnel."
The Army manual specifically bars waterboarding and seven other tactics: forcing a detainee to be naked, perform sexual acts or pose sexually; placing hoods or sacks over the head of a detainee; beatings, electric shock, burns or other forms of physical pain; threatening detainees with dogs; the use of temperature extremes to cause physical trauma; mock executions; and depriving detainees of necessary food, water or medical care.
A McCain Senate aide said that his vote does not mean the senator endorses any of these tactics. Instead, the aide said, there are noncoercive interrogation techniques not used by the Army that could be useful to the CIA. The aide declined to provide an example, but said it made sense for the CIA to use tactics that are not widely known through the field manual, which is a public document.
McCain was a Navy pilot who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam after being shot down. His story of enduring brutal torture at the hands of his captors is well-known, and he has spoken forcefully on Capitol Hill against torture and cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners.
In 2005, he sponsored the Detainee Treatment Act, which explicitly forbade the use of waterboarding and other harsh tactics on U.S. military prisoners but exempted the CIA. During the first GOP presidential debate last May, McCain defended the limited interrogation tactics used by the military. "We have procedures for interrogation in the Army Field Manual," he said. "Those, I think, would be adequate in 999,999 of [1 million] cases, and I think that if we agree to torture people, we will do ourselves great harm in the world." In November, McCain scolded then-candidate Mitt Romney for supporting the use of waterboarding.
The vote came a week after the CIA publicly confirmed for the first time its use of waterboarding. CIA policy now forbids waterboarding, but the Bush administration opposes efforts to explicitly outlaw its use.
Scheunemann said McCain's vote Wednesday was "100 percent consistent" with statements he has made on the subject since 2005. "It's easily explainable and easily understood by the American people," he added.
McCain's vote prompted disappointment among civil liberties and human rights advocates, who have frequently been allied with McCain on detention and interrogation issues. "It's not as if the Bush administration has given us any new reason to trust them on this issue," said Elisa Massimino, Washington director for Human Rights First. "The only thing that seems to have changed is that an election is looming closer."
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said McCain appears to have concluded "that he just doesn't want a fight with the president right now on this issue, or any issue, given his political difficulties with the right." Malinowski added, however, that "in the long run, he always suffers politically when he doesn't appear to be acting consistent with his principles."
Alex Vogel, a GOP consultant not affiliated with any presidential campaign this year, said Senate Democrats had tried to engineer a vote that would put McCain in a box. McCain "can look everyone in the eye and say, 'I know torture. How dare you accuse me of playing politics with this?' " Vogel said. "That's a winner for John McCain."