Political News

McCain May Be the ‘Conscience of the Senate.’ Is Anybody Listening?

Posted May 10, 2018 7:52 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — For more than three decades, Sen. John McCain, who was brutally tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has been a powerful and persuasive voice in Congress on matters of interrogation and the conduct of war.

But in the twilight of his career, as he battles brain cancer at his Arizona ranch, far from President Donald Trump’s Washington, the potency of his moral suasion has faded as voices of ridicule in his own party rise.

Less than 24 hours after McCain, R-Ariz., released an agonized statement in which he said he could not support the confirmation of Gina Haspel to direct the CIA, his best friend in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced his support for Haspel, who once oversaw a CIA secret prison where a terrorism suspect was tortured.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is also close to McCain and previously has sided with him on issues of torture, is also voting for Haspel.

Kelly Sadler, a White House aide, dismissed McCain’s views while speaking behind closed doors to congressional communications staff members, saying: “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” On Fox Business, a commentator impugned McCain’s integrity, suggesting that torture had worked on “Songbird John,” a gasp-inducing slur that nonetheless changed none of the dynamics in the Senate. (The show’s host, Charles V. Payne, later apologized.)

“He’s the conscience of the Senate when it comes to this,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, wondering aloud how much sway McCain will have. “We’ll see how many people listen to the conscience.”

At least one Republican colleague of McCain, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, said bluntly that he would not. “Obviously not with me,” he declared, asked if McCain’s views on Haspel carry any weight. “McCain’s not always right and never has been.”

At her confirmation hearing Wednesday, Haspel, a 33-year CIA veteran who has been leading the agency as its acting director, vowed that she would not start another interrogation program like the one developed under former President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has long maintained that the program, which involved brutal techniques like sleep deprivation and waterboarding, was both illegal and ineffective. Haspel’s testimony was apparently not enough for him.

“Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing,” McCain wrote in a statement Wednesday night. “Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

With McCain absent from the Senate and unable to vote, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., opposing Haspel, Senate Republican leaders will most likely need at least one Democratic vote for Haspel’s confirmation, and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., has said he will support her. But if McCain can persuade at least one additional Republican to oppose Haspel, the nominee could be doomed.

That, however, is a big if.

Sen. Jeff Flake, McCain’s fellow Arizona Republican, said Thursday that he remained undecided about Haspel, though he said McCain’s views would have “considerable” weight.

“He’s the only one who’s been through this,” Flake said, adding, “I obviously share his views on torture, and I always have, so his views mean a lot.”

In a chamber where so much is determined along party lines, McCain appeared to find more support among Democrats than within his own party.

“People around here would be lying to you if they said that it didn’t weigh on them,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who faces a tough re-election fight this fall. “I can’t imagine anybody who has more authority on this subject than John McCain — in the whole country.”

Haspel, 61, oversaw a secret prison in Thailand in 2002 while an al-Qaida suspect was waterboarded there, and is also under scrutiny for her conveyance of an order from her superior to destroy 92 videotapes documenting harsh interrogations. While she told senators at her confirmation hearing this week that the CIA should never resume the brutal interrogations, she maintained that officers should not be judged for their actions more than a decade ago.

“I’m not going to sit here, with the benefit of hindsight, and judge the very good people who made hard decisions, who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances,” she said.

McCain was instrumental in putting such interrogations to a halt. Teaming with Republican allies like Graham, Collins and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, along with Democrats, he added the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 to a defense-spending bill over the objections of the Bush administration, demanding that the CIA adhere to the Army’s interrogation procedures.

With that law in place, Graham said he could look beyond Haspel’s past: “Ms. Haspel has rejected the interrogation policies of the past. She is fully committed to following the law that prevents future abuses. This law, among others, includes the Detainee Treatment Act, which I helped author.”

By and large, Haspel’s backers in the Senate spoke gently of McCain.

“His words always have a powerful impact, particularly given his experience in Vietnam,” Collins said.

McCain, who has not been at work in the Senate since December, has been entertaining a steady stream of visitors at his ranch as he undergoes physical therapy for the debilitating side effects of his cancer treatment. Graham said he spent Monday and Tuesday with McCain, and pronounced himself “pleasantly surprised” at the Arizona senator’s condition.

They watched an old movie — “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a 1962 Western about a senator — together, and McCain kept up a running (and R-rated) commentary, Graham said. They also spoke briefly about Haspel, Graham said, adding, “He knew where I was going to be.”

Noting that Haspel said the torture program would not resume, Graham added: “I would say this about John McCain: He won. He won the debate. The new CIA director agrees with him.”