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It’s a mighty fine line to walk. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) opposes torture. But when the Senate held a vote yesterday that would effectively prevent the CIA from employing torture by restricting interrogation techniques to those under the Army Field Manual, he voted against it.

You can read his extended explanation of that vote below. But here’s what it comes down to. The bill yesterday would have restricted the CIA to the Army’s rules for interrogating detainees. McCain believes that the CIA should have a freer hand. That includes the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

Now, the Justice Department and the CIA haven’t said exactly what those are. But precisely because the White House knew that they’d be fighting this battle, they’ve made quite an effort over the past month to broadcast that waterboarding is not on the list of possible techniques. That’s what their PR offensive has been all about; waterboarding is off the table (for now), so let us keep our toys. Those other techniques “are reported to include stress positions, hypothermia, threats to the detainee and his family, severe sleep deprivation, and severe sensory deprivation,” as Marty Lederman notes.

But by voting against the bill, McCain is saying that the CIA should have a free hand to employ techniques along these lines. At the same time, he stresses that the 2006 Detainee Treatment Act, the bill he himself sponsored, prohibits the use of any cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment and treatment that “shocks the conscience.” He hasn’t said which of the techniques listed above meet that description. But he trusts that the Justice Department and CIA will arrive at a “good faith interpretation of the statutes that guide what is permissible.”

Attorney General Michael Mukasey gave a taste of what that “good faith” interpretation is when he testified before Congress. What “shocks the conscience” depends on the circumstances, he said. Waterboarding might very well be OK, he argued, if the situation were dire enough.

But McCain says that waterboarding is torture. And as he says in his statement below, “It is, or should be, beyond dispute that waterboarding ‘shocks the conscience.'” So he disagrees with the administration’s “good faith” interpretation. But apparently he still has faith.

Confused? It’s certainly not a position that’s easily summarized. The major papers take a run at it this morning, and, well, the nuance just doesn’t come through.

From The New York Times:

The leading Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war who steadfastly opposes the use of torture, voted against the bill. Mr. McCain said the ban would limit the C.I.A.’s ability to gather intelligence. “We always supported allowing the C.I.A. to use extra measures,” he said.

At the same time, he said that he believed “waterboarding is illegal and should be banned” and that the agency must adhere to existing federal law and international treaties.

The Los Angeles Times is even less forgiving:

Underscoring the complexity of the political currents, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed GOP nominee for president and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, voted against the measure. McCain led earlier efforts in the Senate to ban cruel treatment of prisoners, and has denounced waterboarding in presidential debates. But preserving the CIA’s ability to employ so-called enhanced interrogation methods has broad support in the party’s conservative base.

Here’s McCain’s full statement on why he opposed the bill:

Mr. President, I oppose passage of the Intelligence Authorization Conference Report in its current form.

During conference proceedings, conferees voted by a narrow margin to include a provision that would apply the Army Field Manual to the interrogation activities of the Central Intelligence Agency. The sponsors of that provision have stated that their goal is to ensure that detainees under American control are not subject to torture. I strongly share this goal, and believe that only by ensuring that the United States adheres to our international obligations and our deepest values can we maintain the moral credibility that is our greatest asset in the war on terror.

That is why I fought for passage of the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), which applied the Army Field Manual on interrogation to all military detainees and barred cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of any detainee held by any agency. In 2006, I insisted that the Military Commissions Act (MCA) preserve the undiluted protections of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions for our personnel in the field. And I have expressed repeatedly my view that the controversial technique known as “waterboarding” constitutes nothing less than illegal torture.

Throughout these debates, I have said that it was not my intent to eliminate the CIA interrogation program, but rather to ensure that the techniques it employs are humane and do not include such extreme techniques as waterboarding. I said on the Senate floor during the debate over the Military Commissions Act, “Let me state this flatly: it was never our purpose to prevent the CIA from detaining and interrogating terrorists. On the contrary, it is important to the war on terror that the CIA have the ability to do so. At the same time, the CIA’s interrogation program has to abide by the rules, including the standards of the Detainee Treatment Act.” This remains my view today.

When, in 2005, the Congress voted to apply the Field Manual to the Department of Defense, it deliberately excluded the CIA. The Field Manual, a public document written for military use, is not always directly translatable to use by intelligence officers. In view of this, the legislation allowed the CIA to retain the capacity to employ alternative interrogation techniques. I’d emphasize that the DTA permits the CIA to use different techniques than the military employs, but that it is not intended to permit the CIA to use unduly coercive techniques – indeed, the same act prohibits the use of any cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.

Similarly, as I stated after passage of the Military Commissions Act in 2006, nothing contained in that bill would require the closure of the CIA’s detainee program; the only requirement was that any such program be in accordance with law and our treaty obligations, including Geneva Common Article 3.

The conference report would go beyond any of the recent laws that I just mentioned – laws that were extensively debated and considered – by bringing the CIA under the Army Field Manual, extinguishing thereby the ability of that agency to employ any interrogation technique beyond those publicly listed and formulated for military use. I cannot support such a step because I have not been convinced that the Congress erred by deliberately excluding the CIA. I believe that our energies are better directed at ensuring that all techniques, whether used by the military or the CIA, are in full compliance with our international obligations and in accordance with our deepest values. What we need is not to tie the CIA to the Army Field Manual, but rather to have a good faith interpretation of the statutes that guide what is permissible in the CIA program.

This necessarily brings us to the question of waterboarding. Administration officials have stated in recent days that this technique is no longer in use, but they have declined to say that it is illegal under current law. I believe that it is clearly illegal and that we should publicly recognize this fact.

In assessing the legality of waterboarding, the Administration has chosen to apply a “shocks the conscience” analysis to its interpretation of the DTA. I stated during the passage of that law that a fair reading of the prohibition on cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment outlaws waterboarding and other extreme techniques. It is, or should be, beyond dispute that waterboarding “shocks the conscience.”

It is also incontestable that waterboarding is outlawed by the Military Commissions Act, and it was the clear intent of Congress to prohibit the practice. The MCA enumerates grave breaches of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions that constitute offenses under the War Crimes Act. Among these is an explicit prohibition on acts that inflict “serious and non-transitory mental harm,” which the MCA states “need not be prolonged.” Staging a mock execution by inducing the misperception of drowning is a clear violation of this standard. Indeed, during the negotiations, we were personally assured by Administration officials that this language, which applies to all agencies of the U.S. Government, prohibited waterboarding.

It is unfortunate that the reluctance of officials to stand by this straightforward conclusion has produced in the Congress such frustration that we are today debating whether to apply a military field manual to non-military intelligence activities. It would be far better, I believe, for the Administration to state forthrightly what is clear in current law – that anyone who engages in waterboarding, on behalf of any U.S. government agency, puts himself at risk of criminal prosecution and civil liability.

We have come a long way in the fight against violent extremists, and the road to victory will be longer still. I support a robust offensive to wage and prevail in this struggle. But as we confront those committed to our destruction, it is vital that we never forget that we are, first and foremost, Americans. The laws and values that have built our nation are a source of strength, not weakness, and we will win the war on terror not in spite of devotion to our cherished values, but because we have held fast to them.

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