By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

McCain, Brown and torture

I hope the local political press is burning up the lines to U.S. Sen. John McCain’s office today. It would be interesting to know what McCain thinks of state Sen. Scott Brown’s support for waterboarding, a practice McCain rightly regards as torture.

“Waterboarding is an enhanced interrogating technique. We need to interrogate by all legal means,” Brown said yesterday. (Sadly, if you follow the link and scroll down, you’ll see that Brown’s Democratic opponent in the Massachusetts Senate race, Attorney General Martha Coakley, missed a chance to take the high road.) [See update, below.]

Brown’s remarks come on the heels of McCain’s endorsement of him in the Massachusetts Senate race — hardly a surprise, given that they are both Republicans. The question now is whether McCain will stick by his endorsement.

During the Republican presidential campaign, McCain unloaded on former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani when Giuliani said he wasn’t sure if waterboarding was torture. According to the New York Times, McCain said of waterboarding:

All I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today…. It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.

On another occasion, McCain said, correctly:

Following World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding.

As this well-footnoted Wikipedia article notes, waterboarding is also regarded as torture by a wide range of international and human-rights organizations. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have thought otherwise before Dick Cheney came along.

McCain, of course, was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam era and was himself tortured. The question now is whether he will torture logic and stand by his endorsement of Brown — or do the right thing and let Brown experience a drowning sensation caused by his own ill-chosen words.

Update: Coakley took care of whatever ambiguity she might have created by speaking out forcefully against waterboarding in a debate earlier today on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). John Monahan reports in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette:

Ms. Coakley … said she backed Mr. McCain’s view that waterboarding is a form of torture.

“I don’t agree with John McCain on much, but I respect him. He was a war hero and he was tortured and he says he thinks it is. So this is one area where Scott Brown can pick and choose what he believes, but this is an area that he is really more like Bush-Cheney than he is like John F. Kennedy,” she said.

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  1. Neil

    “Sadly, if you follow the link and scroll down, you’ll see that Brown’s Democratic opponent in the Massachusetts Senate race, Attorney General Martha Coakley, missed a chance to take the high road.”

    When your opponent is drowning, throw him an anchor.

  2. Neil

    “McCain, of course, was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam era and was himself tortured.

    Is the reflexive pronoun proper usage here?

  3. mike_b1

    McCain also led the committee that wrote the bill (the “McCain Bill”) that effectively permanently sealed most government records on POWs.

    Which is another reason not to rely on anything he says or does. All those blows to the head clearly have addled his whatever brain he once had. It’s not that his endorsement of Brown is a surprise, it’s that he can say “Brown” at all.

  4. lkcape

    My goodness, Dan Kennedy supporting something that John McCain has said.

    Next, he’ll be calling for some openness and transparency on the part of the Obama administration and Congress in their dealings on matters of import to the nation.

  5. Joey

    I’m really, really trying to care about this race, but Brown just isn’t making the grade. A Republican, in favor of torture methods proven to be unproductive? You don’t say!

    As I was telling a Republican friend yesterday: I haven’t heard squat about Brown’s positions other than that they are standard Republican Party positions. OK, I know what that means: tax cuts at all times, anti-abortion rights, anti-gay rights, anti-healthcare reform, climate change is a myth. Opposed, opposed, opposed, ad nauseam.

    Well, as a voter I’ve been there and done that, seen that those positions don’t help the country one bit, and dismissed them.

    If Brown has some other, insightful idea– say, a true libertarian who has specific programs he wants to cut (good luck finding a trillion dollars’ worth), *and* supports individual rights to reproductive freedom or to marry as you choose– well, in that case he’d be interesting and I’d start paying attention. But I haven’t heard him say one thing that separates him from the mindless GOP position yet.

    Maybe Coakley is a parrot for the Democrats, but at least they want to wrestle with our problems, not deny they exist– and like I said, we already tried the old GOP approach from 2000-2008. Failed. When they have a new approach, I’ll listen, but right now they don’t.

  6. Newshound

    Waterboarding isn’t torture? If it isn’t then why in the world is it done.

    And, why in the world would Candidate Brown ever paint himself in that corner.

    If there is imminent danger at hand and some type of quick torture, provided no other interrogation means would be effective to save the lives of innocent people – – – then maybe waterboarding is selectively acceptable. Keeping millions of good people harmless at the expense of the comfort of a thug may be acceptable within our values and ethics without direct connection to loyalties to Republican or Democrat party or candidates. It is a difficult scenario to agree to in generalities, and certainly a can of worms a smart candidate would want to avoid.

    Ms. Coakly is smart, perhaps smarter than Mr. Brown. When it comes to character and ethics I suspect it is the other way around.

    And, now, who gives a hoot about the Arizona senator John McCain. He’s had his day and is now on overtime. He’s not all that great, nor that bad either. No one in Massachusetts should need John McCain to advise them on how to vote. Like McCain knows more about Brown than the people of Wrentham? Or Massachusetts? Or that McCain is able to process less information that what the voters here have and come up with a better decision. I doubt it. It’s twaddle.

    Senator McCain lives a different life than the common working class of Massachusetts.

    Massachusetts, with its tremendous resources, it seems, should have a candidate for U. S. senator that is both brilliant, generous, altruistic, ethical, honest, and dignified.

    Maybe the next election after this.

  7. Michael Pahre

    Nowhere in either article is Brown quoted directly as saying that waterboarding is torture.

    Instead, both papers use indirect quotations to convey the message: the Telegram said Brown “defended” waterboarding, while the Globe said “Brown asserted that waterboarding does not constitute torture.” The two reports are not quite the same on this crucial point.

    It’s quite peculiar that both papers wouldn’t use a a direct quotation for such a potentially devastating remark. Rhetoric in support of waterboarding plays to the national Republican base, not to the much more progressive electorate here in Massachusetts, so I would think that the reporters would want to convey exactly what Brown said.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: I was looking for a direct quote, which is why I called up the T&G story. It came closer than the Globe — close enough to confirm for me that he had endorsed waterboarding (plus consider what he’s been saying during the campaign) — but I, too, thought it was pretty peculiar that neither the Globe, the T&G nor the Herald had a direct quote. Perhaps I should keep looking.

      An AP story includes this: “He also says waterboarding is not torture despite the president’s recent decision to ban the use of simulated drowning to gain information from enemy combatants.” Again, not a direct quote, but it’s closer still.

  8. Newshound

    Just read today’s Herald story about Brown and how he is ripping off the taxpayers of Massachusetts. He’s a sleaze, too. Lawyer, senator, National Guard all within the comforts and safety of Wrentham and Boston, squeezing every last dime out of our resources – whether it’s sacrifices at home for some to pay taxes, or sacrifices for real and necessary services for the citizens, and especially those with valid needs in Massachusetts.

    When we read of the burdens placed on UMass students with increased costs, or the burdens of 25-year old text books in some of our school systems in the state, or many similar situations, we can think of Senator Brown, who isn’t alone with his money scheming tactics but instead has joined in with the rest of the elected hoodlums and villains to our society.

    Does Senator McCain know about this? Worse, does he even care?

    Maybe every politician who screws the taxpayer, breaks the law, hurts people driving drunk, lies in court, costs the taxpayers money while wasting away in jail, should be waterboarded with Dick Cheney supervising.

    I suppose this can be blamed on bad toothpaste, too.

  9. Harrybosch

    “It’s quite peculiar that both papers wouldn’t use a a direct quotation for such a potentially devastating remark.”

    If Brown says anything short of “waterboarding is an abhorent practice and is indeed torture” then he deserves any inference that might be made.

  10. O-FISH-L

    Lamenting the enhanced interrogation of terrorists just days after one nearly exploded a packed jetliner over a major U.S. city is kind of like crying out against “manmade” global warming in the middle of an epic winter that has brought record snow and cold to much of the world.

    But just when common sense appeared to be most uncommon, Rasmussen now reports Coakley’s lead has evaporated to under 10% points. As Dan Rather might say, courage!

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Fish: Look at the gift Western intelligence received in the underwear-bomber case — his father made sure U.S. officials knew his son might be dangerous. It’s too bad that no one connected the dots, and an investigation is now under way, which is appropriate. But you can be sure the reason the father felt safe in making his worries known was that President Obama had assured the world that we would stop torturing people. Does anyone think the father would have tipped us off if he knew his son would be tortured? Of course not.

  11. Michael Pahre

    @Dan: Brown’s remarks were made at a press conference called for another issue. I would think that someone, in today’s online world, would have put the video on YouTube or Vimeo.

    Remember that Brown is a lawyer. I would expect him to dance around the language as much as possible, but without stepping over some line-in-the-sand — such as saying that waterboarding is not torture.

    And that is what he seems to be doing in all the direct quotations in those stories: saying that waterboarding is an “enhanced interrogation technique,” not using the word “torture”; by saying that the U.S. does not torture (note the tense!), but not saying if the U.S. waterboards or ever has; etc. Dance, dance, dance.

    Until I see a specific direct quotation, I think it can still be chalked up to Brown playing lawyerly word games that might give him some wiggle room to hatch his escape if public sentiment turns on him.

    That said, the emphatic language used in all three news stories, and the reputations of all the journalists involved, tells me that Brown must’ve said something very clear. What exactly he said is still a mystery…

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: I have e-mailed Eric Fehrnstrom, an official with the Brown campaign, seeking comment and clarification. I will post immediately if and when I hear back.

      • Dan Kennedy

        Although this depends to some extent on what the meaning of “it” is, it’s now clear that Scott Brown supports the use of waterboarding. This is from the AP’s account of this morning’s debate on WTKK:

        On another point, Brown split with his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, over the propriety of using a simulated drowning tactic known as waterboarding to gain information from suspected terrorists. McCain, who endorsed Brown, opposes waterboarding. President Barack Obama decided to ban it after it was used by the Bush administration.

        “We’re two different people,” Brown said of McCain. “I believe that it’s not torture. America does not torture. We used aggressive enhanced interrogation techniques.”

        He added: “The bottom line is I will use any means possible, and encourage the president, and support him, in any means necessary, to gather any information to keep our country safe.”

  12. Harrybosch

    “. . . just days after [a terrorist] nearly exploded a packed jetliner over a major U.S. city”

    is the most dangerous time for ALL our civil liberties, the time we must cling to them and hold them most dear.

    Because if they can waterboard him . . . they can someday waterboard you.

    “. . . an epic winter that has brought record snow and cold to much of the world.”

    Your acknowledgment that the climate is changing is noted.

  13. JeffC

    Dan, it’s OK. Liberals don’t want to admit that most rational-thinking Americans approve of using waterboarding to get immediate actionable intelligence. The faster the moonbats drop their holier-than-thou pretense, the safer this country will be.

  14. Harrybosch

    “most rational-thinking Americans approve of using waterboarding”

    Source? I’m particularly curious how, exactly, they quantified “rational.”

    ‘Cuz most Americans believe in Angels and UFOs too.

  15. Harrybosch

    “it’s now clear that Scott Brown supports the use of waterboarding.”

    Actually, the last paragraph makes it quite clear that Scott Brown supports the use of . . . anything.

    “a simulated drowning tactic known as waterboarding”

    There is nothing “simulated” about it, AP. It is induced drowning, in an ostensibly “controlled” environment. But it ain’t simulated.

    “I will use any means possible . . . any means necessary.”

    Those are two different things, both incredibly frightening.

  16. Dunque

    Perhaps Ms. Coakley isn’t drawing attention to Brown’s comments because doing so would raise the question of whether or not she supports President Obama’s continued suppport of rendition. Which is, after all, no more or less than “You guys torture them so we don’t have to.”

  17. mike_b1

    Something smells, and it’s rotten Fish. Nate Silver already addressed Rasmussen’s poll practices, including the most recent one.

    You may remember Nate Silver — he’s the one who called something like 98% of all the 2008 races practically dead on.

  18. Newshound

    Enhanced interrogation technique! Doesn’t that sound nice.

    Win or lose, I think Mr. Brown himself is rather harmless.

    I don’t think anyone is going to be waterboarded with permission of U. S. Commander in Chief in the near future. The chief waterboarder is semi-retired in Wyoming.

    But the language is hilarious.

  19. O-FISH-L

    @Dunque: Speaking of whether or not Coakley supports Obama on certain issues, does she agree with him that Cambridge Police “acted stupidly” in arresting Obama’s pal, the disorderly Professor Gates?

    The question is especially relevant since her husband is a retired Cambridge Police detective and as Middlesex D.A. she prosecuted cases brought by Sgt. Crowley and the rest of Cambridge’s finest. Her husband’s years of service have many normally right-leaning cops supporting her or at least staying neutral. Perhaps she could condemn Obama’s remarks and truly earn their support.

    Answers Martha, please.

  20. Michael Pahre

    @Dan: that quotation settles the issue.

    And then some. Oh my.

    There are plenty of people in Congress and around the country who, for some reason, think that waterboarding is not torture. But I don’t generally hear them saying, “I will use any means possible.”

    Bring out the medieval racks, thumbscrews, iron balls, and wheel. Lawyer Brown failed to offer any kind of limit on what he would do in the name of intelligence gathering.

    I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition (to rear its head in this election).

  21. Nial Liszt

    mike: Don’t see anything criticizing Rasmussen in your Nate Silver link. More like Rasmussen is doing some unusual sampling here and he may be right and he may be wrong. Silver concludes that a “30-point drubbing by Coakley wouldn’t surprise me; nor would a race that kept us up late on Election Night.” If you go into his Pollster Rankings at FiveThirtyEight, he seems to always have Rasmussen in the top 3 of 32 pollsters rated.

    As for Rasmussen poll demographics contrasted to 2008 exit polls in Mass, it would seem that 2008 turnout is not a good baseline. Obama brought out just the voters that Rasmussen specifically underweights in his “likely voter” polls– young, lower income, less educated– who are probable sitting this one out.

  22. Harrybosch

    “There are plenty of people in Congress and around the country who, for some reason, think that waterboarding is not torture.”

    I think, for them, the theorem goes like this:

    1) America does not torture
    2) America waterboarded
    3) Waterboard is not torture

  23. Ben

    I’d be more interested to know what the Senate candidates think of killing terrorists and their families with CIA Predator drones. We seem to be doing that more than capturing them these days.

  24. mike_b1

    Nial, you’re extrapolating from what I said. Silver’s headline says it all: “Rassachusetts: Why a Poll May be Terribly, Horribly Wrong — And Why Democrats Should be Worried Anyway.”

    Please re-read the Silver piece. He indicates specific problems with this Rasmussen poll. Again, you are extrapolating — wrongly, I must add — in suggesting either I or Silver claimed in this piece that there is something inherently wrong with Rasmussen’s methods. But nowhere does he say he thinks Brown would win:

    “If I had to set an over-under on this race, it would be above 9 points for Coakley, especially given the earlier polling. If Coakley were to hold the 58 percent she got in the Suffolk and WNEC polls, for instance, at Brown got all the undecideds, that would imply a 16-point margin of victory. Or, if you take Rasmussen’s 9-point margin and add 4-5 points to it, which has been roughly the magnitude of their house effect thus far this year, that would imply a 13-14 point win.”

    He later qualifies that the 3-5% chance that Brown might win would be what would keep Dems “up worrying,” because this is a gimme seat.

    I will take 95-97% odds all day, every day. And so would you.

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