By William Fisher
Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners is an issue about which John McCain cares deeply. He should: As we all know, that’s exactly what he endured for more than five years in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War.
That’s why it’s unsurprising that, back in 2005, McCain filed an amendment to a Defense Department bill explicitly banning the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by U.S. personnel anywhere in the world, and prohibiting U.S. military interrogators from using interrogation techniques not listed in the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.
President George W. Bush wasn’t happy. The White House tried just about everything to kill the McCain amendment. Vice President Dick Cheney lobbied Congress to exempt the CIA from any interrogation limits, and Bush threatened to veto the bill, arguing that the executive branch has exclusive authority over war policy.
But after veto-proof bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress approved the measure, Bush called a press conference with McCain, praised the amendment, and said he would accept it. Bush finally signed the Detainee Treatment Act in early 2006.
But a couple of weeks later, Bush quietly issued one of his famous “signing statements.” That statement gave the President the right to bypass the law under his powers as commander in chief.
Bush wrote: ''The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.”
Meaning that Bush would be free to ignore U.S. law whenever he thought he should.
Now it was John McCain’s turn to be outraged. And he appeared to be. He publicly rebuked President Bush’s action. He said he would "be one of the first to support going to the United States Supreme Court" if the president indicated through a signing statement that he was "not going to abide" by a law passed by Congress. And he threatened heightened Congressional scrutiny over the Administration’s implementation of the new law.
Well President Bush could not have been clearer. “Not going to abide” was precisely what the President indicated. And McCain did what?
He told Chris Matthews on Hardball, "I would never issue a signing statement. It is wrong, and it should not be done." But he didn’t go anywhere near a court to challenge the statement the president had just signed. Nor did he hold a single oversight hearing on the President’s administration of the DTA.
So what happened to Mr. Maverick?
Which leaves us with this question: If John McCain was prepared to cave on an issue that is at the very heart of his personal campaign narrative, shouldn’t we all be wondering what else he’ll be ready to cave on?