Small Wars Journal

McCain on the Use of Torture (Updated)

CBS News: Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) about his decision to speak out against government torture of terrorists.

Senator John McCain on the Use of Torture - Full text of remarks on the floor of the U.S. Senate, 12 May 2011. Introduction follows:

"Mr. President, the successful end of the ten-year manhunt to bring Osama bin Laden to justice has appropriately heightened the nation's appreciation for the diligence, patriotism and courage of our armed forces and our intelligence community. They are a great credit and inspiration to the country that has asked so much of them, and like all Americans, I am in their debt."

"But their success has also reignited debate over whether the so-called, 'enhanced interrogation techniques' of enemy prisoners, including waterboarding, were instrumental in locating bin Laden, and whether they are necessary and justifiable means for securing valuable information that might help prevent future terrorist attacks against us and our allies and lead to the capture or killing of those who would perpetrate them. Or are they, and should they be, prohibited by our conscience and laws as torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

"I believe some of these practices -- especially waterboarding, which is a mock execution, and thus to me, indisputably torture -- are and should be prohibited in a nation that is exceptional in its defense and advocacy of human rights. I believe they are a violation of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, all of which forbid cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of all captured combatants, whether they wear the uniform of a country or are essentially stateless."

"I opposed waterboarding and similar so-called 'enhanced interrogation techniques' before Osama bin Laden was brought to justice. And I oppose them now. I do not believe they are necessary to our success in our war against terrorists, as the advocates of these techniques claim they are."

"Even more importantly, I believe that if America uses torture, it could someday result in the torture of American combatants. Yes, I know that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations do not share our scruples about the treatment of enemy combatants, and have and will continue to subject American soldiers and anyone they capture to the cruelest mistreatment imaginable. But we must bear in mind the likelihood that some day we will be involved in a more conventional war against a state and not a terrorist movement or insurgency, and be careful that we do not set a standard that another country could use to justify their mistreatment of our prisoners."

"And, lastly, it is difficult to overstate the damage that any practice of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by Americans does to our national character and historical reputation -- to our standing as an exceptional nation among the countries of the world. It is too grave to justify the use of these interrogation techniques. America has made its progress in the world not only by avidly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by persuading and inspiring other nations to embrace the political values that distinguish us. As I've said many times before, and still maintain, this is not about the terrorists. It's about us."

Update. In 2007, SWJ's Malcolm Nance addressed torture in his essay Waterboarding is Torture...Period.

BLUF. There is No Debate Except for Torture Apologists. Waterboarding is a torture technique. Period. There is no way to gloss over it or sugarcoat it. It has no justification outside of its limited role as a training demonstrator. Our service members have to learn that the will to survive requires them accept and understand that they may be subjected to torture, but that America is better than its enemies and it is one's duty to trust in your nation and God, endure the hardships and return home with honor.


Bill M.

Wed, 05/18/2011 - 12:20pm

I am one of the SF guys who agree with Senator McCain. In addition to the points he makes, it can be argued that if this is truly a war of the narrative, we undermine our narrative when our political leaders are stupid enough to bragg about and encourage enhanced interrogation methods openly. While debatable, is is a supposition that enemy combatants are more likely to capitulate in battle when they can anticipate not being tortured, and that in turn results in less coalition casualties.

Reality is always too complex to conform to simple rules, so I don't propose any of the above is black and white. There may be rare exceptions when enhanced interrogation methods are necessary for the greater good, and the appropriate finding can facilitate it in that rare case. However, for our political leaders to openly endorse this behavior in the media is less than helpful, and like most political stunts it is simply self serving.

carl (not verified)

Wed, 05/18/2011 - 1:48am


Malcolm Nance and John McCain say waterboarding is torture. You say it isn't. I buy them and I don't buy you.

I do know bully boys and thugs. You do too. I've seen a very few and I've read about countless others. They do laugh and guffaw about the horrors they inflict. They like it. That monster is in most of us but it is suppressed by civilized values. That cruelty is there and is restrained by disapproval. If we remove that disapproval it comes out to play with people strapped to boards and it likes it. It is smart enough to hide from the light of morality though, it isn't a mindless creature, just an evil one. I think your understanding of cruelty needs to be a bit broader.

Your description of police subduing a suspect forgets that police stop at the restraint part. For the thugs that is only the first step. The fun part comes next for them.

I don't know where your ideas of police interrogations come from. My understanding is they mostly come in two forms, you offer the guy a sympathetic ear to relieve the stress he is feeling, or you offer him a deal. (Slap, if you are out there rip me apart if I am wrong) Stripping people naked in the presence of the opposite sex is not generally an approved interview techniques. Council would object.

Classic argumentative technique, saying you won't speak of something as a way of introducing it into the discussion; as is the presentation of the false alternative, torture or an atom bomb going off in Natchez, MS. At least you didn't use the TICKING atomic bomb scenario that is primarily a plot device to rationalize depictions of cinematic cruelty and make writers and producers feel better about creating torture porn.

Some people are going to defy you. That is the way life is. That may not sit right with you, that is not the way the plot is supposed to turn out, but it does sometimes. If you let their defiance get to you, then you are wrong.

LPierson (not verified)

Wed, 05/18/2011 - 12:02am


Fletcher's durationaless moment as the arrow flies makes for interesting literary imagery.

However to ignore the sliding scale of defining torture, a sliding scale held captive by those who will upon us destruction, or cannot/will not hold themselves accountable for similar acts is foolish.

I do not agree with the definition that places waterboarding, and stressful isometric positions, in the realm of torture. And a "post hoc ergo" claim does not make the case for a broad sweeping accusation of cruelty.

Cruelty is wanton. Cruelty fuels a perverse appetite without cessation. Cruelty seeks the harm of others for the pleasure of it. However, cruelty is not what happened to KSM or Abu Zubaydah.

Your point:

"Now since in order to waterboard somebody, you have to physically overpower their efforts to escape and strap them down, or whomp on them to get them to maintain the so blandly characterized "isometric position", I think it is obvious that those things are cruel an dehumanizing."

I brought police into this discussion to point out similarities. Clumsy effort.

Police in pursuit, legitmately, of the violent and dangerous physically overpower their efforts to escape, and will often restrain them in manner similar to straping them down. Some will be legally and legitimately "whomped" as they are restrained and prevented from escaping. Additionally, Police use legitimate and widely accepted questioning techniques to degrade and dehumanize a perp, to lower his/her resistance to interrogation, and do so in the presence of council.

However, what prompted me to include the police was your comment: "...Overpower their efforts to escape..." That almost sounds like the early arguments advocating proportional responses. I find it troublesome that likes of KSM or Abu Zubaydah should have the opportunity to affect efforts to escape. Allowing KSM and Abu Zubaydah the latitude of defiance, to not compel them to reveal their secrets without a recourse is folly of the highest degree. Do we really want to allow a "re-do".....!?!?!?!?!

All "Jack Bauer'isms" aside; should we as a nation have to, or be willing to, absorb the effects of a nuclear device or or worse? Should we be willing to do such because we were unprepared for lack of information? Should we do so because we are more interested what the world thinks of us? I doubt this scenario would go over well with most of the US population.

Stupidity and laziness got us in this mess, because we didn't take 1993, and 1998 seriously. We are obligated to make the likes of identified terrorist leaders such as KSM very uncomfortable, without making them eat glass etc., to prevent further further catastrophic attacks.

I don't know about so called CIA thugs, bully boys, or suited cowards. I doubt that you do too. Nor do I know anyone guffawing and backslapping each other over the terror and cruelty they've inflicted. Most that fit into that category have been dealt with as they should be. Two individuals were the target of waterboarding. Two. So, in my mind's eye, IF there were any "bully boys" the population is very small.

carl (not verified)

Sun, 05/15/2011 - 4:49pm


I am trying to speak as plainly as I know how. What else I can do to further that, I know not. You say you are for waterboarding. Waterboarding is torture so you are for torturing. Torturing is by definition cruel and yet you say you are against cruelty. So to my mind you advocate torture and only pretend you are against cruelty.

How did police chasing fugitives get into this? You are right about it being a real bad comparison because it this discussion it is a non-sequiter (sic). "Rough you up" after physically subduing you? American police get into a lot of trouble if they do that. What does that have to do with anything anyway?

The sliding scale does not interest me as I see it being of no value. It is interesting in a fletcher's paradox sort of way but who really cares? The arrow gets there. You strap somebody down to prevent them from defending themselves or escaping and then suffocate them, that's torture, feathers and dog licks notwithstanding. I will be forever mystified why you don't think that is cruel.

It matters not if the world says mean things about the US and ignores their own transgressions. It matters not if our feelings are hurt because of that. It does matter if we let our resentment of this turn us into savages.

Waterboarding is a result of stupidity and laziness...and because it makes the stupid, lazy and cruel feel like tough guys. I can easily picture in my mind's eye suits inside the beltway telling each other how tough they were when they authorized this because "the gloves had to come off." I can also easily picture some CIA thugs discussing how this guy or that guy sputtered and coughed and then laughed about it. Bully boys always feel that bullying makes them tough guys.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 10:12pm

In SERE training you know they will not let you die. It is time limited. In real torture, you dont know if they will stop. The time limits may be pushed. There have been accidental deaths. Finally, waterboarding in SERE is done to prepare people for the possibility of torture.


LPierson (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 8:19pm


What you do regarding your respect of others is wholly a personal decision. And you should just plainly speak. Leave the play ground talk lay.

Commit a felony and try to make a run for it, the police will physically subdue you, rough you up, and prevent you from escaping. Especially if you in the process of running you are preventing them from following up on the felony arrest. Bad comparison, real bad comparison.

You say I am for "torture" which you accused me of, in your mind I am guilty. You see my statements as being at odds. Why of course you do, I don't agree with the definitions. We have no common ground on this.

Yes Dennis M did write eloquently regarding the difference. And I am in agreement with his point.

Again, its about the sliding scale, which you have chosen to ignore. Is the following "torture": "Let a filthy dog lick my hand, I am doomed cannot go to Heaven, you have tortured me..!!!"

The world bleats on about US transgressions and ignores their own backroom egregious actors and SAYS NOTHING.

"Hold those damn empire seeking Americans to task, they're so rich and powerful they need a come-upance."

"I will kidnap you, kill you, and decapitate you, and likely commit other unspeakable real cruelty. But damn you if you capture me and send me to GTMO."

We all have heard this kind of emotionally riddled talk ad nauseum for too many years.

Do you REALLY think that waterboarding was done because someone wanted to feel like a tough guy?

carl (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 6:28pm


I like plain speaking. My "devil's own sophist" phrase was an attempt to highlight attempts of people to avoid plain speaking when they speak of these matters. If you mean torture, say it. And waterboarding is torture.

I also asked my question in an attempt to get you to speak plainly. Since you have, in effect, authorized me to speak plainly for you when you say "and you know it."; I will answer the question. You are for those cruel things that I judge to be torture. You are for torture then.

You also stated "I DO NOT, repeat DO NOT, nor will I ever, advocate cruelty or dehumanization. Both have no real purpose other than to serve the perverse pleasures of socio-paths." Now since in order to waterboard somebody, you have to physically overpower their efforts to escape and strap them down, or whomp on them to get them to maintain the so blandly characterized "isometric position", I think it is obvious that those things are cruel an dehumanizing. Therefore, I find your statements are at odds with each other. You want to torture and do things to people when they are strapped down but you don't advocate cruelty.

Dennis M. very eloquently stated the moral difference between training and interrogations. I can add nothing to that. Read his words carefully once again.

My whole life long I have respected and admired American soldiers. I want to be able to continue to do so. I contemn any American who has inflicted these cruelties upon other human beings in the course of interrogations both for their moral cowardice in not telling moral cowards in suits "no, I won't do that just so you can feel like a tough guy" and because I would never be able to fully believe in the simple humanity of somebody who would do in the course of an interrogation. I do not want a situation whereby procedures are formally established that cause me to question the character of the people carrying them out.

LPierson (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 5:59pm

Too many affecting and making policy engage in synchretism and bend standard at whim. These same have little to lose while they are enjoying the ride provided at the expense of the general public. Of course, others will accuse the likes of me, a so called "torture apologist," of bending a standard at "whim."

The word game is fatiguing. Is water boarding harsh, yup. Has it been done to people thoughtlessly and with the intent to inflict painful death or injury, doubtful. Holding an isometric position for several hours, harsh yup. So is humping a rucksack for 30 miles a day over varied terrain. The "airborne break" where we were pushing Georgia into Alabama, several times a day for three weeks was harsh. And all have been described as "torturous." Hence, we all have been tortured.


Court room style sofist character assassinations are only useful when one is attempting to shut someone up. "Devil's own sofist rubric," really sir!?! School yard name calling, no matter how many syllables, is still school yard antics.

My position is quite clear. And you know it.

To re-state my point regarding Senator McCain's statement. The sliding scale.

When does tickling one's toes with a feather duster enter in to this sliding definition scale? Or insulting someone's "momma", is that now not ok?

To couch a standard in the "hope" we will be treated as equally "nice" as we treat detainees/POW'S is just an emotional tug. Reality has provided us volumes that we will not receive same, hope is definitely not a course of action here.

We Americans constantly belittle ourselves over issues such as this, concurrently we demonstrate a lack of long term foritude. We are loathe to see something through past the 11pm news. And our enemies know this better than we.

Dennis M.

Like a large number of contributors here, "been there, done that", as stated in my original offering here.

Yes we certainly did try and convict Japanese military officers for torture. And we engaged in wholesale slaughter to arrive at a point where we could exercise the privilege to try them. Wholesale slaughter and killing are less cruel, demeaning, and degrading?

Second point, those who have sought, and are now engaging in seeking our defeat/destruction do so with no knowledge of what could befall them? They may be some what ignorant, but they are certainly not stupid or lack the intellect understand.

I DO NOT, repeat DO NOT, nor will I ever, advocate cruelty or dehumanization. Both have no real purpose other than to serve the perverse pleasures of socio-paths.

Demeaning, humiliating, and thus degrading a hostile "enemy combatant's" will, and find their breaking point. Yes, I do advocate doing so. And if one has to be waterboarded to get there, so be it.

Will we have this same argument when we experience the next murderous "man made catastrophy?"

Dennis M. (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 2:03pm

LPierson is right that one of the problems with the debate is that there is disagreement over what is considered "torture." The use of such terms as "enhanced interrogation techniques" is meant to obfuscate the core issue: should we ever treat detainees in a manner that is cruel, inhumane, and degrading?

Sen. McCain rightly points out that the use of any of these techniques, to include waterboarding, is un-American. It is cruel and inhumane and degrading. We would be outraged -- and have been -- if any of our soldiers were subjected to waterboarding or many of the other "enhanced interrogation techniques." We have tried and convicted Japanese service members of war crimes after WWII for subjecting allied POWs to waterboarding.

The fact that we subject our own service personnel to waterboarding as part of their training has absolutely no bearing on this debate at all. First, the service members are volunteers and the presumably understand that they will be subjected to this treatment. Second, it is precisely because we know that this treatment is cruel and inhumane that we expose them to it. The purpose is to condition them to the treatment so that in the even they are captured and subjected to it by the enemy, they are somewhat prepared for it. That is an entirely different moral situation than using it as part of an interrogation of a prisoner.

So, is the use of waterboarding against our values as Americans? I would say yes.

AK (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 11:59am

LPierson wrote

"To lump waterboarding into the realm of cruelty, because it is a "mock execution?" Really?!? I guess I am a victim of several "mock executions." Along with several thousand others who have endured same. We endured in order to be prepared for the treatment awaiting us if we should fall into the wrong hands. "

Here is some material from the Special Forces website.

"of the most interesting findings by the Army was the difference found between Special Forces soldiers and other soldiers. Data from Army studies showed that Special Forces soldiers had higher levels of adrenaline during the SERE training than regular Army soldiers.

"When adrenaline was measured 24 hours after the SERE stress was over, the adrenaline levels of Special Forces soldiers returned to normal levels. But adrenaline levels in non-Special Forces soldiers were depleted. The data suggests that Special Forces have a biological profile of people who are "cool under fire." "
Source: Dr. C.A. Morgan III and Maj. Gary Hazlett, from "Special Warfare" magazine published by the JFK Special Warfare Center and School

(The URL includes charts)

A man who makes it far enough to qualify for SERE is not an average person. One has to be specially tough and resilient to qualify for SERE--and it appears, have an unusually efficient biochemical response to stress

So that does not prove waterboarding isnt torture--its that SERE graduates are unusually efficient in coping with ordeals.

We have think of the persons who lack this biochemical gift and in prison for indeterminate periods and are waterboarded more times than is done to SERE trainees.

carl (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 11:35am


I am uncertain of your position. Do you think all those action covered under the devil's own sophist rubric of "enhanced interrogation" should be permitted and used or not? Is it OK or not OK?

LPierson (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 4:40am

Yes this is silly isn't it.

However, to couch this in terms of future conflicts is disingenous. No matter how loudly we Americans scream and self-flagellate ourselves over "human rights", there is no enforceable promise gauranteeing "humane" treatment, unless we are the victors in of those future conflicts.

Case in point: The last conventional opponent we faced that had any semblance of concern for detainees/POW'S was Germany. And we had Nurenberg to take care of those few who were guilty of mass murder.

Post-Nuremburg North Korea/PRC, and as Sen. McCain well knows, the North Vietnamse, and Saddam's Gulf War Iraq cared little for adherance to POW protection rules. NONE of those nations were held to ANY account. Thus, given any historical trend, why would we believe any future conventional opponent would adher to rules we expect to be enforced?

Now do I advocate for cruelty because others WILL be cruel? HELL no. Do I think it is ok to pull out toenails, fingernails, hang individuals by their genitals, beat the soles of the feet with wooden mallets, pummell torsos with rubber hoses filled with sand, or worse. Absolutely not!

To lump waterboarding into the realm of cruelty, because it is a "mock execution?" Really?!? I guess I am a victim of several "mock executions." Along with several thousand others who have endured same. We endured in order to be prepared for the treatment awaiting us if we should fall into the wrong hands. Knowing we have opponents/enemies that WILL NOT treat us well. Knowing that every man has a breaking point. Yes, every man has a breaking point.

I for one am not at all convinced that Waterboarding did not work, regardless of the good Senator's impassioned opinion to the contrary. Senator McCain I respectfully disagree. We found KSM'S breaking point, and to push away how we got there would be immoral. And I doubt any those methods would be close to those listed above.

We have now fully entered, full stride, into the era of the sliding scale of definition. A scale based on relative preceptions generated by those who will not endure, by those that have a stake in something that is foreign to the rest of us.

We now have European lawyers teaming with the remaining UBL heirs to bring a case into some court accusing the USA of wrongful death.

So whats next?

Yes it is about us and how we take care of us.

carl (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 1:34am

Thank you Senator McCain for saying this. I'd thought we'd driven a stake through the heart of the torture vampire but it keeps trying to come back. Keep up the good work Senator, we need your efforts.