Ethics Hero: Sen. John McCain


While other Republicans are attacking the Senate report on torture as a political hit piece by Democrats—which, in part, it is, but that doesn’t diminish its significance—the one Senator who has experienced torture is supporting the report’s conclusions and criticism, saying…

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguished us from our enemies.”


My position on this topic is unchanged from what I wrote in 2006, which you can read here.

29 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Sen. John McCain

  1. When is a one-sided witch hunt ever the ethical course of action? It seems to be another case of “the ends justify the means.” In the process of wasting $40 million on this partisan witch hunt, Feinstein’s “investigators” never even interviewed the officials who carried out the program. The investigation was so badly handled that the Republicans pulled out of it over five years ago.

    Also, Feinstein has accused a number of people in the CIA of serious felonies, including war crimes and lying to Congress. And she never gave them a chance to defend themselves before her committee. This is no different from Lena Dunham’s smear of “Barry One” or the Rolling Stone hit piece on the fraternities at UVA. It reeks of the Star Chamber justice we are seeing on college campuses that has railroaded innocent people on dubious sexual assault charges.

    While I respect McCain’s convictions on the subject, I think that by NOT calling Feinstein out for producing a one-sided partisan hit piece, he failed in his ethical duties as well.

    McCain stood by his convictions against most of his party, making him an Ethics Hero. But McCain is also an Ethics Dunce for not calling out what was a blatantly unfair process.

    • How is this a witch hunt? The US has signed a treaty forgoing torture, and the CIA denied that it was torturing. The defense we’re hearing now is, “How can you say it doesn’t work?” As I have written before, that’s an unethical argument. OK, let’s say it does work. The United States of America shouldn’t do it, except when there are no alternatives and the danger is specific, catastrophic, immediate, and no other options remain.

      • As I pointed out earlier, the people who Feinstein accused of serious felonies were never interviewed. Those who have been accused of lying to Congress and torturing were denied the chance to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee their side of the story – much like the way many sexual assault complaints are being adjudicated on our college campuses.

        We are being asked to believe Dianne Feinstein that the CIA tortured, when the CIA denied it tortured. We are being asked to believe that the techniques in question were not effective. Yet that assertion is strongly disputed as well by the CIA.

        As I said, this reeks of what Lena Dunham did to Barry One – make accusations that can only be described as life-ruining – and do so in a manner that leaves very little chance for the targets of her smears to rebut them.

        You can’t derive an ethical result from an unethical process.

        • How are these “life ruining”? Nobody’s going to be prosecuted. We knew about rendition and waterboarding and sleep deprivation. We know the CIA wasn’t trying to be villains, but rather doing what it thought was necessary and right…they were wrong and misguided, and got bad signals from the top. It opens up a debate, that’s all, and an important one. No one who read the Yoo memos could be surprised at any of this.

          • They could have been prosecuted had they been captured by the domestic authorities where they operated. (Some of these tortures happened in Afghan territory.)

            Come to think of it, our spies that operate overseas risk prosecution by foreign governments if captured.

    • I love how this, as well as all other events that were a direct consequence of 9/11, are being spun as solely the work of republicans.

  2. I have never experienced torture, nor have I ever tortured, so I can no way be called an expert on it. I do know a few things about it, like a confession extracted via torture is worthless, but that information extracted that way may or may not be. However, this is much like other forms of atrocities, in that if we practice the same behaviors as our enemies, what separates us? What is it that makes us the good guys and them the bad guys? If we are them, who’s going to care which of us is which?

  3. Jack,

    Your analysis on torture and it being unethical is certainly spot on, with no disagreements from me. But, just as we invalidate the gun-control opinions of the Sandy Hook families because, despite their personal experiences, they are the absolute definition of biased commentators. Just as we don’t consider the pronouncements on police conduct by Trayvon Martin’s parents or Michael Brown’s parents as being a fair analysis because of their clear biases on the issue. Would that not also somewhat tarnish John McCain’s ability to be seen as objective on the topic of torture?

    • Yup. McCain is biased beyond question. Nothing says his bias necessarily requires him to challenge his own party….he could just keep quite, as so many in both parties do regardless of their beliefs, rationalizing, Like Kerry and Biden do on abortion, that their “private, personal beliefs” shouldn’t be “imposed” on others. That’s the distinction: whatever its origin, McCain is willing to stand up against his party if necessary. That’s why he is an Ethics Hero, not because I happen to agree with him.

      And I should have been clearer.

    • From what I’ve heard, McCain was singing like a bird long before any torture could begin. This was alleged by other P.O.W.’s that were interred with him.

  4. I have watched with a good bit of sadness how Sen. McCain has forgone so many of his principles over the last few years to try and kowtow to the increasingly radical primary voters in his state. I’m glad to see there’s at least one thing he’ll continue to hold firm on.

  5. We went through all of this, including waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation, in SERE school. Thousands of special ops and aviation personnel per year continue to do so. Much ado about nothing.

  6. Widespread torture is not pursuing the best in us, and even silence to support the team becomes approval. We have enough muddling about issues of free speech, religion, and bearing arms, but torture can’t really even validate ‘ends justify…” with false results. Then it becomes vindictive and a weapon of terror.
    We can’t decry terror if we practice it. Honor, fairness, and accuracy combine. Speaking against it is the right thing.

  7. How many of those tortured were POW’s? Bill Levinson makes this excellent point

    I’m ashamed of what some U.S. soldiers did to Iraqi POWs because those
    POWs were ordinary men who were probably drafted into Saddam’s army, and they are entitled to the protections of the Hague and the Geneva
    . They had nothing to do with atrocities that were committed
    by Iraqi terrorists. If our people (or the Israelis) did that sort of
    thing to Hamas members or similar vermin, however, I would not give a
    . If they had actually set German Shepherds on Hamas members or
    other terrorists instead of just threatening them, I would not shed one
    single tear.

    On the other hand, the guards who seemed to be enjoying their work too
    much, i.e. were engaging in sadistic enjoyment at the prisoners’
    expense, are not the kind of people who should be in any army even if
    they were doing it to terrorists instead of POWs
    . There is a difference
    between righteous anger (and revenge) and sadism.

    Then again, my opinion is that terrorists should not be taken prisoner
    in the first place. Their surrender should not be requested or accepted
    and first aid for terrorists should consist of the coup de grace. I hope
    the two terrorists who were killed were wounded first, and were then
    shot dead while begging for mercy

    I agree with Bill Levinson. I wonder how many other Americans agree with him.

    Captured terrorists should be shot and then thrown into a brazen bull to ensure their demise.

  8. Robert Heinlein, putting words into the mouth of one of his protagonists, Lazarus Long, said “Always remember that your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes. That way, if the situation changes, you can make him a friend.” Unfortunately, Heinlein never addressed the ethics of the behavior of our enemies. And we, apparently, are willing to address the ethics of our own behavior.
    In this world, there are good guys and there are bad guys. As Heinlein said, it is doubtful if the people we see as bad guys see themselves in that role, and are, I would judge, using as an ethics justification, “The ends justifies the means”, which I believe has been addressed numerous times in this blog. We cannot do that, or at least, we shouldn’t. If we are going to cast ourselves in the role of good guys, then there must be a sharp dividing line between us and them, and that line must be our own ethics. In this case, we must judge ourselves on our means rather than on our ends, no matter how lofty. Remember, our ends, our goals, may not be shared by the bad guys. In this case, they certainly are not, as their goals are defined by a religion.
    Is this going to put us at a disadvantage? Probably, but we can easily overcome that disadvantage, simply by being smarter than the terrorists, not by being more ruthlessly sadistic. An effort to frighten terrorists into submission is almost certainly doomed to failure, as their effort to frighten us into submission has failed.
    John McCain, in his speech on the floor of the Senate, has attempted to recall us to our ethical stance. I hope we pay attention, because if we don’t, then Pogo was right; “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  9. The torture was outsourced too. A real cash-cow for the torturers.

    #13: Two contract psychologists devised the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. By 2005, the CIA had overwhelmingly outsourced operations related to the program.

    The CIA contracted with two psychologists to develop, operate, and assess its interrogation operations. The psychologists’ prior experience was at the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.

    On the CIA’s behalf, the contract psychologists developed theories of interrogation based on “learned helplessness,”and developed the list of enhanced interrogation techniques that was approved for use against Abu Zubaydah and subsequent CIA detainees. The psychologists personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA’s most significant detainees using these techniques. They also evaluated whether detainees’ psychological state allowed for the continued use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, including some detainees whom they were themselves interrogating or had interrogated. The psychologists carried out inherently governmental functions, such as acting as liaison between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, assessing the effectiveness of the interrogation program, and participating in the interrogation of detainees in held in foreign government custody.

    In 2005, the psychologists formed a company specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the CIA. Shortly thereafter, the CIA outsourced virtually all aspects of the program. In 2006, the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement. (pp 11-12)

    • Why bother capturing terrorists al;ive? Just shoot them and then throw them into a brazen bull to ensure that they are finished off.

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