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Jewish World Review May 11, 2006/ 13 Iyar, 5766

Nat Hentoff

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McCain's straight-talk express breaks down | On April 23, the National Consortium of Torture Treatment programs — including 34 programs that care for "victims of politically motivated torture" — awarded Sen. John McCain its 2006 Human Rights Visionary Award for his "tireless work to pass the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment." Omitted was McCain's disturbing silence after his amendment was made meaningless to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay when the president signed the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 last December.

That law strips these prisoners of the habeas corpus rights provided them in the Supreme Court's ruling in Rasul et al. v. Bush in 2004. Accordingly, no matter how harsh these detainees' conditions of confinement are, they have no recourse to our courts. For example, during the brutal force-feeding of prisoners on a hunger strike, the guards told a detainee, "We can do what we want now because you can't go to court anymore."

McCain has not publicly protested the effect of this law.

Tom Wilner (an attorney for a number of the prisoners, who has talked to them at Guantanamo Bay), in explaining how "the heart has been taken out of the McCain amendment," points out that in language slipped into the bill during the House-Senate Conference Committee sessions, the final law "actually authorizes the tribunals at Guantanamo to use statements (against the detainees) obtained through coercion." (That can mean torture.)

Wilner continues: "That provision works a significant change of existing U.S. and international law and actually provides an incentive for U.S. officials — or officials from other governments through (CIA) renditions (sending terrorism suspects to other countries to be tortured) — to obtain such coerced statements."

As soon as the Detainees Treatment Act of 2005 was signed, I called McCain's press staff, which had previously been quick to answer my questions. I requested a statement by the senator on this deep-sixing of his amendment outlawing cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. No one called back. I then left a personal message for the senator asking for any comment he chose to make. There has been no response.

Like many Americans — and human-rights supporters around the world — I had been very impressed when John McCain withstood persistent pressure from the president and from Vice President Dick Cheney to withdraw his anti-torture amendment. The president even threatened to veto the Defense Authorization bill, in which the McCain amendment originally appeared, if it stayed in.

But then — in a televised and otherwise much-publicized Oval Office meeting with McCain on the amendment — the president, praising the senator, said nothing about a veto, and McCain had clearly prevailed.

As it turned out, not so clearly. In a signing statement that accompanied the bill becoming law, the president — as he has done so often to undercut other new laws — made clear he would disregard the torture ban if harsh interrogation techniques help prevent terrorist attacks.

McCain did say publicly then that he would keep an eye on the implementation of his amendment. But when that amendment was nullified for Guantanamo prisoners — with much wider implications, as Wilner has noted — McCain has been silent. Yet, the "Certificate of Appreciation" presented to John McCain in April reads: "in recognition of his unyielding will and tireless work to pass the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment."

Moreover, in a comment sent to me after I questioned the award, Mary Fabri, president of the Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs, wrote: "We know torture is common throughout the world. We certainly recognize that while the McCain amendment is an encouraging step toward preventing future atrocities, we all have much work to do."

Reading that, I thought that while the force-feeding at Guantanamo was getting wide attention here and abroad, the senator might have been able to stop it — as prisoners locked into restraining metal chairs were urinating and defecating on themselves — by saying publicly that the Detention Act of 2005 was grievously violating his anti-torture amendment, which is uselessly included in the same law.

In a Washington Post column, "A Man Who Won't Sell His Soul," David Ignatius writes, "A McCain candidacy, if he makes the formal decision next year to run, will be rooted in his image as a man of principle. But it will also be something of a balancing act — one that the candidate himself is likely to find uncomfortable."

I certainly hope so. After McCain's "triumph" in the Oval Office, I was seriously thinking of voting for him in 2008. But I have changed my mind. Situational ethics are not the same as real principles.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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