McCain, Obama Help Muddle the 'Torture' Issue

One of the most striking and, frankly, disturbing features of this year's presidential election campaign has been the tendency of the Republican candidate John McCain to sound like an echo chamber of his Democratic rival Barack Obama. It is this essential harmony of opinions on so many crucial matters that rendered the three presidential debates such soporific affairs and that will undoubtedly render the very act of voting an excruciating experience for many if not most Republicans.

On no issue has this been more striking than on that of so-called "torture." In the first presidential debate, it was in fact the Arizona senator who took the lead, twice interjecting -- although no one asked -- that he had opposed the Bush administration on "torture of prisoners," before Obama chimed in: "I give Senator McCain great credit on the torture issue." In the last debate, it was the Illinois senator's turn to take the initiative by praising his Republican rival for showing "commendable independence, on some key issues like torture, for example," before McCain "responded" by trotting out his usual list of "disagreements" with the Bush administration, in which the "issue of torture," of course, had pride of place.

But what exactly is the issue? Hardly anyone, after all, would have expected either candidate to come out in favor of torture. Although neither Obama nor McCain bothered to elaborate, they were presumably referring to the well-known charges that the Bush administration authorized the use of torture to extract information from detainees captured in the course of the "war on terror." In a real debate, one or the other participant would have recalled that the Bush administration has, of course, persistently denied these charges, arguing that the so-called "harsh interrogation techniques" that it approved were all within the limits of U.S. law. To pose the issue in terms of whether or not torture should be used is in fact to concede the point that is at the center of the controversy that has been raging on the "torture issue": namely, whether or not torture was used -- or, in other words, whether the "harsh" techniques constitute torture.

As outlined in a now-famous October 2002 Defense Department memorandum, these techniques included such apparently "shocking" practices as requiring detainees to stand ("for a maximum of four hours"), substituting cold rations for their usual warm rations, and "forced grooming" (i.e., shaving a detainee's beard against his will). To stylize such practices into "torture" is obviously to make a mockery of the ordinary concept of torture. The same memorandum also requested approval for the practice that has come to be known as "waterboarding." It is worth noting that this request -- like the request to use several other harsher "Category III" techniques -- was turned down by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (See the response, as penned by Pentagon legal counsel William J. Haynes, here.) The only "Category III" technique that was approved was the "use of mild, non-injurious physical contact such as grabbing, poking in the chest with the finger, and light pushing" -- yet again hardly the stuff to send chills up the spine. (It was in fact the CIA, not the much-maligned Rumsfeld Department of Defense, that engaged in waterboarding. A Washington Post article published last week claims that administration officials also provided "secret" authorization for waterboarding. The article is based exclusively on anonymous sources.)

What are the implications of the "torture issue" for the elections?