McCain Does Not Know Contents of Current CIA Interrogation Program

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote a story about John McCain’s position on the CIA’s ongoing interrogation program. I explained the complex sequence of events that led McCain, a vocal opponent of President Bush’s interrogation program, to side with the president on a recent vote that would have required the CIA to limit its interrogation techniques to the methods listed in the Army Field Manual. Both McCain and Bush oppose that move.

There were two questions, however, that my story had not been able to answer. The first was, Did McCain know the contents of the current classified CIA interrogation program, and if so, did he approve of the techniques? The second question was, What types of techniques does McCain believe the CIA should be able to use that are not contained in the Army Field Manual, which generally is limited to psychological, and not physical, approaches?

On Thursday, I was able to ask McCain these questions. To the first query, McCain said flatly that he had not been fully briefed on the classified program, which means he does not know the specifics of the techniques now permitted by the CIA and the White House. “I have not,” he said of his lack of a full briefing, “not any more than is available to non-members of the Intelligence Committee.” As a practice, only Congressional leaders and members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are told such highly-classified matters.

This answer is interesting because it means that McCain cannot know for certain if the Bush Administration is currently following the letter of the law, which was authored by McCain, requiring the U.S. Government to avoid cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. In the past, the Bush White House has interpreted federal torture statutes and international treaties in ways that allowed practices like waterboarding, which McCain has long maintained is a clearly illegal form of torture. The CIA has said it no longer uses waterboarding, but the Bush Administration refuses to say that the technique is illegal, suggesting that other similarly harsh techniques may still be in use. Last year, McCain told me that if techniques that violate the Geneva Conventions or the international torture convention were still being employed, he would support prosecution of those officials who violated the law.

Multiple Democrats who have been fully briefed on the current CIA program believe the current techniques are illegal under a fair reading of the law. On February 8, for instance, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said this on the floor of the Senate: “Now, in addition to being immoral, I believe the CIA interrogation program is illegal. I say this as a member of the Intelligence Committee, and I say this as one who has been briefed several times on these techniques.” On the same day, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, another member of the Intelligence Committee, said this: “When the intelligence authorization bill was marked up by the committee in May, I made my position clear. I could not support the CIA’s program on moral, legal, or national security grounds. When I was finally fully briefed on the program, it was clear that what was going on was profoundly wrong.”

When I asked McCain the second question–What techniques does he believe the CIA could legally employ outside the Army Field Manual?–he declined to answer. “I can’t go through a laundry list,” he said, adding that all of the techniques would have to follow the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition against “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.”