The Corner

McCain: Coercive Interrogation Never Works, Except, Y’know, When It Works

Asked about coercive interrogation this evening, Senator McCain continued to try to have it both ways, insisting that it never works because the interrogee will say anything his inquisitor wants to hear, but also acknowledging that an interrogator might well resort to coercive tactics, even though they purportedly never work, if the circumstances were dire enough.

As I’ve previously noted, he’s done this dizzying routine before.  Here is McCain in the 2005 essay he penned for Newsweek, addressing the “ticking bomb” scenario (italics is mine):

Those who argue the necessity of some abuses raise an important dilemma as their most compelling rationale: the ticking-time-bomb scenario. What do we do if we capture a terrorist who we have sound reasons to believe possesses specific knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack?

In such an urgent and rare instance, an interrogator might well try extreme measures to extract information that could save lives. Should he do so, and thereby save an American city or prevent another 9/11, authorities and the public would surely take this into account when judging his actions and recognize the extremely dire situation which he confronted. But I don’t believe this scenario requires us to write into law an exception to our treaty and moral obligations that would permit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. To carve out legal exemptions to this basic principle of human rights risks opening the door to abuse as a matter of course, rather than a standard violated truly in extremis. It is far better to embrace a standard that might be violated in extraordinary circumstances than to lower our standards to accommodate a remote contingency, confusing personnel in the field and sending precisely the wrong message abroad about America’s purposes and practices.

So, confronted by the do-or-die starkness of a ticking-bomb, McCain — whose standard tactic is to cite Colin Powell and other former high military officials who purportedly agree with him that coercion never works — acknowledged in 2005 that it “might well” be necessary to use “extreme measures” to get life saving information, and that so doing might in fact “save an American city or prevent another 9/11.” 

McCain’s swerving on the efficacy of coercion might be of no moment had he not used his status as a tortured POW to influence U.S. policy, successfully pushing through legislation (the McCain Amendment) that granted Fifth amendment rights (as well as Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights) to alien combatants held overseas.  The Supreme Court held in its 2000 Dickerson decision that the Fifth Amendment privilege against coercive interrogation includes Miranda rights – such as the right to have taxpayer subsidized counsel present at all custodial interrogation.  Someday, probably soon, some federal judge is going to connect those dots and rule that, under McCain’s amendment and Dickerson, enemy combatants detained outside the U.S. must be given Miranda warnings and free counsel before any questioning by U.S. authorities.  Sen. McCain, at that point, will no doubt have an explanation that is every bit as cogent as his current riff on how coercion never works … except when it works.