McCain’s Lack of Clarity

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McCain’s recent statements about warantless wiretapping and FISA have not clarified the seemingly contradictory messages that came out last week. (The Greenwald has a typically exhaustive run-down on the back and forth here.) In 2006, he was definitive (ish):

WALLACE: But you do not believe that currently he has the legal authority to engage in these warrant-less wiretaps.

MCCAIN: You know, I don’t think so, but why not come to Congress? We can sort this all out.

Six months ago, he was still fairly certain: “There are some areas where the statutes don’t apply, such as in the surveillance of overseas communications. Where they do apply, however, I think that presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is.”

Then, as of Monday, he appeared to have joined the administration in the belief that Article II does allow the president authority to grant those wiretaps.

But, over the weekend, he told reporters that “It’s ambiguous as to whether the president acted within his authority or not,’’ when it comes to the wiretaps, and that, whatever their legality, “I’m not interested in going back. I’m interested in addressing the challenge we face to day of trying to do everything we can to counter organizations and individuals that want to destroy this country. So there’s ambiguity about it. Let’s move forward.’’

The most generous interpretation of his position is that warantless wiretapping MIGHT have been illegal when Bush did it, but that it should be legal in the future. From a civil libertarian point of view, that’s pretty much the worst possible position for someone to hold: i.e., not only will we NOT determine if the government overstepped its bounds in the past, but we will broaden its authority in the future, which implies a kind of ever-expanding approach to government power.

Yet McCain insists his position hasn’t changed. When I spoke to him last week (in an interview that was mostly on a totally different topic), he claimed, “I haven’t deviated in the slightest …. As I’ve said before, there’s a delicate balance protecting rights and national security.” He blamed the stalling of new FISA legislation on partisan gridlock and argued, “I’m not trying to give anyone blanket immunity for anything I’m saying we need sit down and review the issue with the interests of our national security first in mind.” But then he also said that what came out of the Senate was totally fine, implying negotiation (or at least compromise) was unnecessary: “I don’t think Jay Rockefeller or any of the Senate Democrats that agreed to [the FISA legislation] would have agreed to something that was unfair.” I guess that depends on whether you think “blanket immunity” (which was in fact part of the Senate bill) is fair.

And when I asked him about conservative commenters who have applauded what they see as a shift towards embracing the Bush view on executive branch powers, he said, “I haven’t changed my position on that at all,” and that he still pledges, “I will never use a signing statement.”

Now, I admit that my understanding of FISA is pretty pro-am, and that it’s also possible that McCain’s absence from the Senate means he’s not up to speed on the latest kinds of compromises that are being discussed, but, honestly, I can’t make sense of what he’s actually believes among all of these statements. For every straightforward declaration, there’s a weirdly squishy backstep. I’ve sent this post to someone at the campaign, will let you know their response.