The Maverick is getting mavericky again, at a critical time. He is singularly qualified to call torture what it is, and to condemn it. Which he's done, first with an op-ed in the Washingtong Post, responding specifically to the claim from former Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey in another op-ed that torture led to bin Laden.
Much of this debate is a definitional one: whether any or all of these methods constitute torture. I believe some of them do, especially waterboarding, which is a mock execution and thus an exquisite form of torture. As such, they are prohibited by American laws and values, and I oppose them....
But this must be an informed debate. Former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently claimed that "the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information—including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden." That is false.
I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times....
In fact, the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information.
He followed that up with speech on the Senate floor:
Greg Sargent has an extended portion of the transcript
"...The first mention of the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, as well as a description of him as an important member of Al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country. The United States did not conduct this detainee's interrogation, nor did we render him to that country for the purpose of interrogation. We did not learn Abu Ahmed’s real name or alias as a result of waterboarding or any 'enhanced interrogation technique' used on a detainee in U.S. custody. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed's real name, his whereabouts, or an accurate description of his role in Al-Qaeda.
"...All we learned about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti through the use of waterboarding and other 'enhanced interrogation techniques' against Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the confirmation of the already known fact that the courier existed and used an alias.
"I have sought further information from the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and they confirm for me that, in fact, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in Al-Qaeda and his true relationship to Osama bin Laden — was obtained through standard, non-coercive means, not through any 'enhanced interrogation technique.
"In short, it was not torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden. I hope former Attorney General Mukasey will correct his misstatement. It's important that he do so because we are again engaged in this important debate, with much at stake for America's security and reputation. Each side should make its own case, but do so without making up its own facts."
McCain has a definitely checkered past in actually voting on the Bush torture regime, most notably his Military Commissions Act which immunized the government and individuals from prosecution for torture as well as giving broad power to the executive on determining what constitutes torture under the Geneva Conventions, and his 2008 vote against prohibiting the CIA's use of torture. However, Sargent, who has been writing about the apparent intention of Republican senators to focus on the torture debate in the upcoming confirmation hearings of Leon Panetta and Gen. David Petraeus, has a good point. McCain's anti-torture voice in this fight is important, and could give the Obama administration incentive to take on this fight.
It's becoming clearer that despite the Obama administration's desire to avoid relitigating the torture debate, this is precisely the time to do it. The emerging evidence is on the side of torture opponents: A careful and extensive New York Times investigation concluded that torture "played a small role at most" in tracking down Bin Laden. Beyond this, the larger dynamic is perfect: The president that has been widely derided by the right as weak for ending torture tracked down and killed the world's most wanted terrorist. That's a pretty strong starting point for this argument.
Prosecutions of the torturers will never happen. Even a Truth Commission to shed light on the war crimes of the Bush administration won't happen. But this White House has the opportunity now to make a strong case against the use of torture. For the preservation of any shred of moral standing for the U.S., this is just about our last chance. The administration has to engage. Now's the time to do it.