WASHINGTON — It’s been quite some time since John McCain was legitimately considered a maverick in the United States, given he’s frequently aligned himself since his presidential defeat in 2008 to those on the far right reaches of the Republican party.
But the Arizona senator is back in the maverick saddle again on an issue that’s deeply personal to him — torture.
McCain is openly chiding some of his fellow Republicans for their insistence that torture lead U.S. intelligence to the Pakistani lair of Osama bin Laden.
“I’m deeply concerned about who we are as a country, and what we stand for and believe in,” McCain said on CBS’s The Early Show on Friday, a day after he penned an editorial in the Washington Post disputing the notion that torture played a role in bin Laden’s demise.
“America has always been an example, and an inspiration to other countries throughout the world, and if we practise torture and do things that diminish, and even harm the image of the United States, and motivate our enemies, then it could have profound consequences in the future.”
He’s taken particular aim at those who have insisted that the torture of alleged 9-11 operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed led investigators to the courier who brought information to and from bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
That’s a circle of Republicans that includes former George W. Bush administration officials Donald Rumsfeld and Michael Mukasey.
On the floor of the Senate on Thursday, McCain disputed Mukasey’s insistence last week that Mohammed “broke like a dam” during 183 waterboardings.
“That is false,” McCain said, adding he was told directly by CIA head Leon Panetta that the courier’s identity was obtained through other means.
McCain added that the staff of the Senate intelligence committee have told him that the most solid information on bin Laden came via non-cercive means.
Waterboarding Mohammed “actually produced false and misleading information,” he said, adding the details provided by the alleged terrorist ultimately proved untrue.
“The fact is that this courier was identified first by a person who was not been held in U.S. custody,” McCain said. “In fact, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed not only did not tell the truth about this courier, he even tried to mislead the interrogators by saying that the courier had retired, gotten married, and lived in Peshawar.”
It’s a return to form for McCain, widely respected for his “maverick” tendencies during Bush’s presidency as he butt heads frequently with the administration, particularly on defence and national security issues.
“Torture for him is a really hot-button issue, and he hasn’t changed his tune on the issue, even though he’s changed his tune on just about everything else,” Terence Ball, a political science professor at Arizona State University, said Friday.
“Right now, we’re seeing the John McCain that most Arizonans respect and admire. But let’s face it — he’s an odd one. The nice word would be ’maverick,’ the not-so-nice words would be inconsistent and incoherent.”
Indeed, since losing to Barack Obama in the presidential election in 2008, there’s been little sign of the moderate who was once a champion of immigration reform and believed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — the controversial policy banning gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military — should be lifted as long as military commanders agreed.
Last year, he railed against lifting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell even after top military officials supported its demise. He’s also routinely voted against Democratic measures he once fully supported.
Chief among them is the so-called DREAM Act, which would allow the children of illegal immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship by finishing college or serving in the military — a bill McCain once passionately sponsored. Senate Democrats reintroduced the bill earlier this week after it failed to pass during the last session of Congress.
Ball says McCain, who faced a challenge for the Republican nomination in Arizona during last year’s mid-term elections, was attempting to appeal to the Tea Party elements of the party’s primary voters in order to hold onto his Senate seat.
“He went so far to the dark side; he just seemed so desperate, that he would do or say anything to placate the far right,” he said.
“He behaved rather shamefully, and this might be an attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of those who lost a lot of respect for him last year. Torture, really, seems to be the one thing he’s taken a principled stand on, and he’s implicitly giving credit to the Obama administration as well with the stand he’s taking.”